Birmingham is the undisputed curry capital of Britain, making it the perfect place to try your hand in a balti kitchen. Words LYNETTE EYB
It takes just eight-and-a-half minutes to make the perfect balti. That’s how long it took the chef in Birmingham’s Royal Naim Restaurant to work his magic when we wandered in for a lesson from the master.
The smell of spices had reached my nose long before I reached the kitchen. Even during a brief toilet stop upon arrival at the restaurant, I could smell the wonderful aroma of spices – most of them unidentifiable – wafting through the building.
Back in the kitchen, there was row after row of spices, all neatly set out on the pristine kitchen bench, waiting to be used during a furious eight-and-a-half minute cook-off.
A typical balti house like this one uses around 2000kg of onions and up to 300kg of chicken breast each week. When you consider there are more than 50 restaurants in the city’s ‘Balti Triangle’ and dozens more scattered elsewhere in the city, you come to realise that a hell of a lot of onions and a few farmyards of feathered friends are consumed here every day.
Balti translates as ‘bucket’, but it’s actually flat-bottomed, wok-like pan, which is used to cook and serve a delicious mix of tomatoes, onions, fresh spices and the meat of your choice (though vegetable balti is also popular).
Exactly who from within the city’s Pakistani and Kashmiri community first invented the balti to Birmingham back in the 1970s is a matter of contention, with up to half a dozen restaurants claiming the title of Britain’s ‘original’ balti house. And exactly what the people of Pakistan think about a pocket of England inventing its own ‘authentic’ curry dish is anyone’s guess.
Regardless, Birmingham can rightly claim to be the curry capital of Britain – more than £7m passes through the tills in the Balti Triangle each year, making curry big business. And that business has spread to tourism with the promotion of Balti Weekend Breaks designed to show the rest of us what all the fuss is about.
Which is why I was standing in a kitchen, bewildered by the flurry of spices and the heat of the stove, and wondering how on Earth I would ever create something as discernibly edible as what had just been whipped up before me.
I had time to ponder this as we spent an hour or so wandering the aisles of nearby Pakistani and Kashmiri supermarkets, looking as much like tourists as we would if we were in downtown Lahore. There was a fine array of weird and wonderful veg for sale, but not a single bottle of curry paste in sight.
Curry paste would have come in handy when I tried cooking my first balti a short time later. I ended up sitting down to an interesting meal of fried tomatoes and onions, mixed with a strange combination of spices and just a little too much chilli. And it felt more like eight-and-a-half hours than the minutes it had taken our master chef. “Room for improvement,” he said.
While you’re in Birmingham
• Shop ’til you drop at the Bullring shopping centre (www.bullring.co.uk), where you’ll find more than
1000 shops within a 20-minute radius.
• Or visit the Jewellery Quarter (www.the-quarter.com) to cash in on some serious bargains.
• Take of tour of historic Villa Park, home to Aston Villa, one of the foundation clubs of the Football League. See www.avfc.co.uk.
• Visit the Cadbury factory – Birmingham’s answer to Dublin’s Guinness factory (www.cadburyworld.co.uk).
• Birmingham is rightly proud of its nightlife – hit the bars and clubs along Broad Street, where you’ll find lots of skimpy outfits and boys with an abundance of hair product.
• Crash out in the quirky new Nite Nite Hotel (www.nitenite.com) – just a bit bigger than a Japanese
capsule hotel and with a plasma TV screen taking up an entire wall, it’s a novel way to spend a night (just make sure you leave all that shopping at reception).