William Dargue A History of BIRMINGHAM Places & Placenames from A to Y
The Balti Triangle/ Balti Belt
B11/ B12 - Grid reference SP085843
Balti: first record 1982; Balti Triangle 1990s
This is a name coined by Birmingham City Council in the 1990s to define an inner-city district as a tourist attraction - and with great success. Birmingham, and this district in particular, have become famous nationally as the birthplace of the balti. The area between Stoney Lane, Ladypool Road and the Moseley Road in Balsall Heath which roughly forms a triangle pointing towards the City Centre, was well-known locally from the early 1980s as the home of good but cheap curries which were eat-in rather than take-away.
Originally opened by immigrant Kashmiris of Pakistani origin and dubbed 'Indian' restaurants by the English, balti houses were set up as much to serve their own communities as the host community. They catered for people of limited means but who knew about real home 'curry' cooking, and were not housed in elaborate surroundings but in converted shops. They were cheap, but used good-quality fresh ingredients. Balti houses often stayed open until the last customer had left and, though unlicensed, allowed clients to bring their own alcoholic drinks. The variety of food available, together with the fact that customers shared large naan breads with which to scoop up the balti from flat-bottomed iron bowls, made for a fun late-night experience which quickly spread across the city.
The origin of the word balti is unclear. The earliest written reference is found in 1982 in an advert for a restaurant in Balsall Heath's community newspaper, The Heathan. Here balti meat is listed as one of the dishes available on the menu along with tikka and kebabs. However, although the word is assumed to derive from a Hindi word for a 'bucket' or a Panjabi word for a 'deep brass dish', these are not terms used of this cuisine in the area of origin.
In northern Kashmir on the Chinese border is an area called Baltistan, where people do share food from a communal pot. But they do not cook in the balti way. Is it possible that the early owner of an 'Indian' restaurant in Birmingham was a Balti/Baltistani from this area? Most Baltis/Baltistanis are Muslims, but they are generally of Tibetan descent, and not typical of Birmingham's Kashmiri community. The truth is that there is not a satisfactory explanation of the origin of the word.
And neither is there one single recipe for a balti - each chef and home cook has their own. However, a typical balti sauce is a blend of fried onions and tomatoes, garlic and ginger with a variety of other spices including coriander, cumin and turmeric, and very likely chilli powder and paprika. This mixture is stir-fried on a high heat with meat such as beef, chicken or lamb and then left to simmer until tender.
William Dargue 04.09.2008/ 30.07.2010
For 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps of Birmingham go to British History Online - Maps.