"It's not much but it's ours"

Monday, May 18, 2009


On the last of what had turned out to be three hugely enjoyable days in Birmingham, I decided to remind myself of the impact of two of its largest immigrant populations on the food not just of the city but of the whole country.

First up, a short drive West of the city to Lozell's Road where, I was told, there is the highest density of people with Caribbean origins in the U.K. I had pencilled in “Curry Goat” on my list of the UK’s defining fifty dishes and headed off in search of one of its most famous purveyors, Russell’s.

It was already filling up when I arrived and it took me a second to figure out an ordering system that seemed second nature to everyone else. Joining a lengthening queue, I gave my order of a “mutton dinner with rice & peas” to an elderly lady and was told to “wait just a lickle bit” as my food was prepared in a large kitchen to the rear of the restaurant. In front of me, a huge man was ordering pea soup “ to give me strength” and behind me, a couple were ordering a dinner of akee & saltfish.

When my food arrived, wrapped in a small brown paper bag, I took it and a can of coconut water I had ordered and found a place in the crowded restaurant to eat my lunch. The “mutton” was of course goat meat and had the slight chew that I was told was the sign of a good curry goat (never goat curry, they tell me) and my portion was served on the bone so the meat could sucked from each small piece, which I did with a loud sucking noise which brought some tuts of disapproval from some of the older diners.

The rice was served with gunga or pigeon peas whose cooking liquor had been allowed to mix with it to give a slight red tinge and I mixed spoonfuls of it into the deeply savoury sauce of the curry. It’s filling stuff and, after polishing off most of my £5 lunch, I deposited my remains in the bin and went for a walk to work some of it off.

I had arranged a meeting with Wade Lynn of Island Delights. Wade is a bit of a local legend, a hugely successful local businessman who is slowly introducing the UK to the pleasures of the Jamaican pattie. For those who don’t know anything about them, the pattie is like a Cornish Pastie with rhythm. With a slightly yellow crust, coming from the addition of turmeric to the pastry and a filling of meat or fish, they are a staple throughout the Caribbean islands.

Wade and Island Delights have just about cornered the market and for a reason, his patties are really very nice, even if to capture orders from the supermarkets he has had to rebrand some as ‘slices”. His next target is to get his patties on sale at football matches up and down the country and, even speaking as a man who has a fondness for pies of the Pukka variety, I suspect he stands a very good chance.

Bu early afternoon it was time for me to experience my final meal in Birmingham, perhaps the dish for which it has become most famous, I am referring of course, to the Balti.

Although many assume that the Balti is an Indian dish mainly because its popularity in the 80’s and 90’s meant it appeared on every menu of every Indian restaurant in the country, the Balti is a uniquely Birmingham institution created by Pakistani Kashmiri restaurant owners in the mid 1970’s to meet the demand of local customers for healthier dishes.

The true Balti is made in a specially constructed stainless steel pot, created in Birmingham just for this dish and contains only small amounts of oil, no more than five different spices and lots of fresh ingredients cooked quickly over a high heat.

I learned all this from Andy Munro, a passionate brummie who not only works to raise funds for the redevelopment of his city, but also heads up the Balti Association. He has, by his own admission eaten thousands of the things and he kindly gave me and two friends, James and Styart, also keen to experience the real thing, a tour of the spiritual home of Balti, Ladypool Road.

Andy certainly knows his stuff and seems to know everyone in the city. As we walked the length of the street, car horns honked as their owners called out to him and every shop owner had a word for him. He took us to the hardware stores where the dishes were originally sold. The man who designed them died some while ago and there are only a few hundred of the real deal left. Andy is trying to by the original molds to see if he can have them made elsewhere.

All of this is interesting enough, of course, but means nothing if the food is no good, so Andy took the three of us to one of his favourite places on the street, The Punjab Paradise, where owner and local councillor, Tahnaveer gave us a tour of the kitchen to see Balti being made properly before sitting us down to sample more food that was entirely sensible for anyone who had already eaten curry goat, rice & peas and Caribbean patties.

It was, however, great stuff and we used unfeasibly large naan breads to mop clean bowls of about four different varieties. Ironically, although the Balti was created for Western tastes, it is also popular with the local Asian community and Tahnaveer brought out a bowl of “chicken balti desi” made with little or no sauce, the way his Asian customers like it.

By some margin it was my favourite and proved to be the perfect full stop to my return visit to the city. I have to say that I really enjoyed my time back in Birmingham, the food scene there has certainly picked up in the twenty years since I have been away, both in variety and quality. It now has three Michelin starred restaurants and a thriving dining scene away from the excellent Balti.

However, like so many cities, it is the people who really make Birmingham. Not knowingly cool like their equivalents in Manchester or as dour as their equivalents in Sheffield, the brummies are just beguilingly down to earth and as welcoming as any in the country. I may have had to say “tara a bit” for the moment, but I know it wont be another twenty years before I come back
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Anonymous G.McKenna said...

ok,I get the special pot thing....but I'm still not sure what exactly is a "balti" i.e. what is in it -you imply it is low in grease(thank God) but apart from the special pot...are there veg?meat?fish?spice?is it curry?hot?mild? etc

Wednesday, May 20, 2009 9:03:00 am  
Blogger meemalee said...

You gotta love Birmingham for inventing the table naan ;)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009 10:32:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

balti comes from the word bucket curry in a bucket lol bloody lovely though :)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012 1:01:00 am  

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