Birmingham Balti - Gastro Obscura
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Prepared Foods

Birmingham Balti

Once ubiquitous throughout the city, shops serving this unique Pakistani curry are disappearing.

Unlike most curry dishes, which are cooked slowly, Balti is cooked quickly on high heat in a wok-like metal bowl and often served in the same container. The presentation method is meant to preserve the intense heat, a signature of the Pakistani curry. In fact, some dramatic presentations involve rewarming the bowl at the table, on a small portable gas burner (but this is probably more to do with adding a bit of drama than necessity). 

Though Balti has roots in South Asia, it is most popular in Birmingham, England. While there are several origin stories swirling around the dish, many point to Mohammed Arif, a chef who immigrated to the city from Pakistan in the 1970s. Birmingham Balti’s signature traits are its rapid, high-heat cooking style, its use of vegetable oil instead of ghee, and its blend of spices such as coriander, garlic, ginger, and garam masala. And the name? It could be a reference to the serving technique (balti means “bucket” in Urdu) or to Northern Pakistan’s Baltistan region.

Originally, most Balti dishes used mutton (adult sheep), but modern iterations often feature lamb or chicken. The meal is most popularly eaten with naan bread rather than rice and in specialist Balti houses, this will be in the form of a large shared “table naan.” In the most authentic establishments, you will not be given a knife and fork but will be expected to eat the Balti by scooping it up with pieces of naan bread.

Though the dish is intrinsically linked to Birmingham, Balti houses are disappearing from the city. Due to a variety of factors—such as younger generations embracing other foods or occupations outside the family Balti business—many Balti houses have been closing their doors. There still remains a healthy number of establishments, however, in southern Birmingham’s “Balti triangle,” located along Ladypool Road, Stoney Lane, and Stratford Road.

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Contributed by
Dr Alan P Newman Dr Alan P Newman
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