I have lived in London for 15 years, yet I have never been to Birmingham just a couple of hours away. Londoners are notorious for sticking just to London and it irked me that I was now doing the same (I am a Londoner, after all!). So, this year I decided that I would make the effort to explore places nearby and not just foreign shores. The UK is very diverse and holds lots of interest for me. (And I have been trying, see my post on A Sunny Weekend in Bournemouth & Lunch at the Pig on the Beach from earlier this year).
Birmingham will surprise you. It is the second city in the UK and it is the youngest city in Europe (40% of the population are under 25), infamous for brutalist architecture, and undergoing a major regeneration right now. In terms of food, Birmingham is famous for the balti, a dish developed there by immigrants in the 1970s and served primarily in the Balti triangle, a collection of streets packed with restaurants serving their variations on this dish. Balti, like curry, is a dish and a name invented in the UK.
Balti is cooked fast over fierce heat in balti pans, similar to karahi but thinner, that were originally made in the jewellery district of Birmingham. Adapted from the dishes of the villages left behind in Kashmir, India and Pakistan where one large dish would be prepared over the fire for the whole village, in Birmingham the balti dishes were deliberately made smaller and thinner so that the dish could be cooked quickly and intensely and be prepared for one person.
I was lucky enough to join Zaf of Shababs in Birmingham in his kitchen where he showed me how to make their chicken balti, which I share with you in the video below (originally shot on Snapchat @eatlikeagirl). Shababs is very well regarded, and was established by Zaf’s older brother in 1987. Zaf is now patron chef there, and has been for some years.
The balti is light, yet rich and smoky. I tried an egg one also. I adore an egg curry, and eggs generally. The egg balti was fabulous, light, gently folder and rich with spice, and it is certainly something that I will be looking to recreate and adding to my repertoire (and, of course, sharing here).
Zaf gave me a recipe for his chicken balti, which you can use to recreate a balti at home. I adapted it a little at home, but it is very close to what he gave me, adapted from the balti in his restaurant. Make it, and I would highly recommend a trip there to experience it properly. I am definitely going back, and I am taking advantage of the fact that they also pack them to bring home.
Shababs, 163-165 Ladypool Rd, Birmingham B12 8LQ
Adapted from a recipe supplied by Zaf of Shababs in the Balti Triangle in Birmingham
- 1 tomato, peeled and chopped
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 inch ginger, peeled and grated
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped and crushed with the back of your knife
- 2 chicken thighs, skin and bone removed, chopped into 1 inch chunks
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp dried fenugreek leaves (methi)
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 tsp garam masala
- pinch of salt
- 2 small chopped green chillies
- a handful of torn fresh chopped coriander
Heat the oil in a balti or frying pan over a medium heat. Add the chopped onion and fry, stirring occasionally until translucent and soft 5-7 minutes).
Add the chopped tomato and stir through. Then add the ginger, and the garlic.
Stir well for a minute or so and then add the turmeric, paprika and chopped chillies.
After a minute add the chicken. When it is completely white / browning add the cumin, garam masala and the dried fenugreek leaves. Stir through and add a glass of water (approx a wine glass / 200ml). Bring to the boil, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 5-8 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.
Top up with hot water from the kettle if you need to but bear in mind that the dish is meant to be quite dry.
Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary. Stir through the fresh coriander and serve immediately.
Eaten traditionally with naan bread.
With thanks to Zaf for being so generous and sharing his recipe.
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