Sunday, 26 July 2009

Rooted cosmopolitanism: Balti

Accompanied by a family-nan, there is surely no more restorative, tasty and cheap meal to be found anywhere than a Balti. It means 'bucket' in Hindi, and was invented in Birmingham. I gather it's a version of the wok-cooked curries of the Pakistan highlands - the source of a good number of Birmingham's sub-continental immigrants - made stew-like to appease local, Welsh-influenced tastes. The authentic Balti, if such a description can be used, is still only to be found in Brum.

I told an Indian friend about the Balti once. To his ears, I must have asked him if he'd ever tried eating a bucket. Even after my explanation, he was fairly incredulous.

I would recommend a mushroom-and-dhal (it's the only food I've come across that's better vegetarian) with a family nan if you're a party of more than one. Eat it without cutlery, the bread serves perfectly well. Yasser's, on the Pershore Road, used to be very good, especially as there's an offy next door to pick up a four-pack (Balti Houses are generally unlicensed: shop-bought Kestrel makes your meal even better value).

I like to think I played a small part in the popularisation of the dish. I lived in Brum for a year when I was just starting out in the world of work, in an area called Stirchley. Standing in the back-garden you could smell Cadbury's chocolate, wafting over from the Bournville factory.

A short while later I was going out with a girl who was a producer on TV-AM, the old ITV breakfast channel. She had to fix some features for when the show was to be broadcast from Birmingham. I suggested the Balti - then, as remote from West London as its sub-continental origins - would be a great thing to discover on a breakfast show.

She must have been desperate so fixed up the feature. Shortly afterwards the Balti invaded the menu of Indian restaurants in nearly every town in the country. The transformative power of breakfast television. But as I said, these imitation Baltis are generally inauthentic and taste nothing like your Brummy Balti - it's rooted, see? (It's also got something to do with the red hot, multi-shelved baking ovens the Brummy Balti chefs use, I reckon).

I liked Birmingham, even back then, in the pre-Selfridges days. The people are friendly, as is the accent. Great metropolitan and university art galleries with some nice Pre-Rapaelites. The Central Markets are (or were) good for fish. And of course the Balti.

I believe I had positive feelings about the city even before I'd ever been there (some may say this is when you are most likely to feel positive about Birmingham). Did you know that if you stand not too far from the Rollright Stones on the top of the Cotswold escarpment on a sunny day and look north over Warwickshire's green plain, you can just make out the glittering of windows as the sunlight catches the tower blocks of Birmingham? It's amazing what can be made romantic if you choose the right time or place and add a dash of fancy.

3 comments:

Gadjo Dilo said...

Dare I say, if some people took their "family nan" to a balti restaurant she'd say something like "Bloimey, wot's all this distoostin' foreign muck then?" But hopefully not :-)

Strewth, the WordVer here is "Orude".

Brit said...

Dear god, Gaw, if I read this right, you are directly responsible for the ubiquity of the Balti on Indian menus across the country!

I've had a few Brum baltis in my time. My sister was a student there, lived in a ghastly squat in Selly Oak. Horrible place, great fun.

Gaw said...

Gadj: Excellent transcription of Broomie. You truly are an expert linguist, as I'm sure is the person who chooses WordVers (just not in a language I've come across).

Yes, Brit, that is exactly the rumour I'm trying to start. 'Directly responsible': just like that butterfly that started an earthquake, or whatever it was.

Selly Oak was a neighbouring district - a bit posher (not that you'd notice much) but similarly horrible good fun. Nice uni.

The other nice thing about Brum and Brummies is that they're not as chippy as northerners.