In praise of the Birmingham balti, the “foodies'” whipping boy

Okay, it may not look much but history was made here.

IMG_1044

Some time in late 1992, I walked in here with a four-pack of Red Stripe lager and ordered a chicken and mushroom balti. I pimped it with some bindi. I was always bold.

It was my introduction to one of the greatest fusion foods in Britain – the Birmingham balti. The sizzling curry came in a blackened dish and was accompanied by a nan bread. That was it.

For a lad from Kent brought up to expect rice with his korma, not to mention a liberal sprinkling of banana and sultanas – or at the very least a portion of chips – this was sensory seduction, part of my food education.

The Minar had the full package: flock, faux red velvet wallpaper; low lighting; a hatch through which you could see the kitchen – and the flames licking the ceiling from the super-quick cooking style; an iffy loo; staff who were genuinely happy to see you; and a packed dining room.

The food was tasty, it was cheap (less than a fiver for a dish) and you could take your own tinnies.

It felt authentic, no frills, and I loved it for that.

Then times changed.

On a personal note, we had children, we stopped going on lager-fuelled balti binges, and everyone jumped on the balti bandwagon. Sainsburys started making alleged balti sauces. Bradford laid claim to the balti. So did Croydon.

As post-millennial culinary plaudits rained down on the city, the balti became the whipping boy for all that was bad about Birmingham’s dining scene. It was derivative, it was tacky, it simply wasn’t very good. It was a bit, you know, 1980s.

Or so they said.

Nowadays, it is safe to say the balti is not the darling of the Birmingham street food scene. Here is a milieu of communal cooking and eating that I admire although I can’t help thinking the culinary cachet of street food has been inflated by those darlings of the new media who would have jumped on the balti bandwagon if only they had been old enough, or born.

In a literal sense, the balti is very much a traditional Brummie soul food because it has nurtured hundreds of thousands of souls. But this Pakistani/Birmingham speciality is not really welcome in 2015. If only it came with a side of “dirty grits” and tattoos. Oh, well.

Neither is the balti loved by the citadels to bland dining that have sprung up in parts of the Mailbox, Brindleyplace and the Colmore business district. Sadly, you can’t eat a keema balti from a designer watering can. Not yet at least.

There is also sniffiness towards the curry among some of our new and newish (and largely fine) generation of Indian restaurants, who champion the Madhur Jaffrey balti is “just a craze” attitude.

Some of the criticism holds, of that I have no doubt. The Balti Triangle, that shifting geo-politico-gastro territory of Sparkhill, Sparkbrook and Moseley, has some bona fide turkeys. There are some Johnny, and Jamals, Come Latelys. The curries in these establishments are indistinguishable anti-food, united by their flavour and texture ubiquity.

But there are some gems. Al Frash, for one, stands out. I had cracking chicken garlic balti a couple of months ago. In its as own right, within the constraints of budget, it is as good as anything you could hope for in a curry.

Sadly, my old haunt, The Minar, is pretty much unrecognisable from its early 90s incarnation. Today it is a “diner” selling jacket potatoes and pan inis, the most evil breaded snack ever created. Closer inspection reveals it sells “balties.”

I gave the place a wide berth and joined balti aficiando Andy Munro in heading to the Shahi Nan Kabab on the Stratford Road.

Andy Munro

Balti buccaneer Andy Munro. Picture courtesy of Anna Gibson

Munro has just published an informative guide to the quintessential Brummie curry called “Going For A Balti – The Story of Birmingham’s Signature Dish.” As well as some splendid pictures of Munro looking like a an extra from the film “Boogie Nights,” there are great stories about the balti, touching on its origins and what makes it special.

Did you know, for example, that the original balti dish – a small, lightweight wok-type construction made of thin, pressed steel – was invented for Muslim chefs by a Sikh in Smethwick. That’s a fact. That’s ingenuity. The curry is cooked and served in the dish, no slates required.

Azhar Mahmood opened Shahi Nan Kabab in 1989 following a crash course in the business in the London restaurant chain of the same name, which is run by a cousin.

Shahi Nan Kabab

Shahi Nan Kabab on the Stratford Road

Cooking duties fall under the command of retired Pakistani Navy chef Khurshid Ahmed, who is a dab hand at the light fragrance that is the hallmark of the authentic balti.

We arrive at the restaurant/café armed with that essential component of a balti dinner – plastic bags tinkling with beer.

IMG_1050

The place is famed for its sheekh kebabs, so we order a couple and some chicken tikka to get the ball rolling.

The kebabs are good, cooked to order over charcoal at the front of the restaurant. I could eat about 10.

IMG_1077

Getting a grilling

Later, my taxi driver asks me if I had the kebabs. “They’re the best around,” he says. “All the drivers go there.” If local Asian cabbies rate the place, that’s better than good enough for me.

Kebabs

Kebabs

The chicken, too, is flavoursome, lightly smoky, bereft one-size-fits-all volcanic food colouring. The garnish is, I’ll say it, a bit 1980s. But I ain’t here for the salad.

IMG_1053_2

Chicken tikka

I’d imagine either the kebabs (£1.60 a portion) or the chicken (£3.20) tucked into a nan with chutney would go down a storm. It’s what a lot of younger people are eating. The clientele, on the whole, is 95% Asian.

Sadly, the brain balti is no longer available, so for old time’s sake I play it safe with a classic chicken and bindi balti (£6.90). It arrives in a trademark blacked balti dish, the meat mixed with chunks of okra and sprinkled with fresh coriander.

IMG_1059_2

Chicken and bindi balti – a timeless classic

The sauce is light, non-oily, and deeply flavoured with turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, garlic and ginger. It is what it is and I think it’s perfect.

Because I haven’t had enough garlic, I have a garlic nan. It’s a substantial bread with a biscuityness. I polish mine off while Munro can only handle half his peshwari. Those dodgy ’70s movies have taken their toll on the chap.

IMG_1065

Garlic nan (front)

I guess what I am trying to say is this: I am fed up with the sneering and the denigration of the Birmingham balti. At its best, and that’s all I’m interested in, it is a fine example of all that is good about this city’s food story and its heritage of cultural cohesion.

After the cronuts and chipotle hot dawgs have gone, the balti will live on. It’s immune to fashion and that’s why I like it.

  • Andy Munro’s “Going For A Balti – The Story of Birmingham’s Signature Dish” is published by Brewin Books, priced £7.95.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *