It’s not just another Indian curry.
The balti is a flavourful chicken curry, served in the steel container it is cooked in, and eaten with naan. It’s an exclusive Birmingham creation, and not an Indian curry that’s been localised. It owes its origins to a Kashmiri migrant, who in the 70’s created a dish that was a fresh, fast and filling meal. He cooked, and served it in a flat-bottomed steel wok. He called the dish and the vessel balti. The balti quicky became a hit and saw a mushrooming of balti houses, which earned the region the nickname, Balti Triangle.
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The balti is easily the most recognisable dish in Birmingham. In my week in the UK’s second largest city, I discovered Brummie food beyond the balti. Food that was similarly interesting, had some claim to fame, championed local ingredients and creativity, and was delicious.
It helps that Michelin Guides love the city — as any Brummie worth his salt will tell you, they have the most Michelin stars in the country outside of London. In the Jewellery Quarter is Opheem where chef and owner Aktar Islam offers up elevated Indian-inspired food like Orkney scallop cafriel with cucumber, a Cotswold white chicken Awardhi korma with pearl barley, and Sindhi Aloo Tuk with achaari pink fir potato. In another part of town, fellow Michelin companion, Purnell’s, also treats ingredients with reverence. Glynn Purnell is chef, cookbook author and TV personality and his eponymous restaurant offers dainty plates of food containing delicately plated mushroom dusted truffle potatoes, tuna sashimi with pink peppercorn jelly and caviar, smoked cod with candied beetroot, and Sable Briton with fresh and frozen blueberries.
Birmingham’s dining scene encompasses cafes with superb snacks, standalone places serving fine-dine fare, and outlets of restaurant chains. In the thriving city centre is Medicine Bakery. Walking in is like stepping into a greenhouse, with natural light streaming in through the glass roof, and décor lush with greenery. Medicine has a mean breakfast sandwich with pulled beef and offers a variety of sweet, baked goods (the donuts are the star). On another central road sits the contemporary Italian Fumo where a crisp white Bianco di Vespa from Puglia accompanies my plate of lobster risotto. On another day, I drop in at Laghis in Edgbaston, an unassuming upscale deli offering beautifully flavourful plates of food: cured salmon with avocado and caviar, a tomato salad, mushroom risotto and barbecued squid with scallop.
Away from the glitz and glamour of Michelin stars, and the comfort of established brands, there’s much diversity on offer. Leading me in this discovery is Simon Carlo, local food celebrity and food and drink writer. He promises to show me a different side of Birmingham, and I readily tag along for the ride.
We begin with the balti.
Deep in the heart of the predominantly South Asian Balti Triangle, I am greeted with lehngas in shop windows and Hindi music streaming out on the street. Carlo calls balti ‘a work of art’ and introduces me to one of the artists. At Shababs, owner Zafar Hussain takes me into their kitchen to show off the biggest USP of the dish: how swiftly it cooks. In minutes, he dropped spices, onions, garlic and tomatoes into the steel balti, topping it up with a ladleful of curry, adding the chicken and turning up the heat. “My father started the place as a snack shop, before we started serving balti,” he says, as flames dance around the vessel. By the side, the naan goes into a tandoor so that both are finished at the same time. “Today we have different variations of it, but the chicken is most preferred.” Eating a balti is an experience — hands get messy, there’s no cutlery or plates, and conversation is minimal.
Out of the Balti Triangle, we move to the bright lights of the city centre. At Purecraft Bar & Kitchen, I sip on their Purity Brewing Co’s various offerings, from cider to craft brews, including a smooth pineapple sour habanero. Our nosh here is a better alternative to fish and chips: beer battered fish fingers, tartare sauce and iceberg lettuce served in a sourdough sandwich. “Sourdough is quite a fad now. You will find it everywhere.”
Our food tour ends in Chinatown at Chung Ying. Located down the road from Hippodrome Theatre, Chung Ying recently won The Golden Chopsticks Award for Best Dumplings in the UK. Over plates of a selection of their award-winning dumplings — prawn and chive, mixed seafood, and steamed beef — and crispy baby cuttlefish, James Wong tells me how his parents started the restaurant in 1981 in an old shoe warehouse. Back then the area was derelict, but Wong’s father saw potential. Before long, Chung Ying (and ultimately Chinatown) and its surroundings became the playground of the rich and famous. Today, Chung Ying is the region’s busiest restaurant, does karaoke (a novel concept when introduced), and has an extensive dim sum menu.
My most memorable meal in Birmingham is deserving of all awards, and a Michelin star. It is all vegetarian — “I want to highlight vegetables as main ingredients,” says chef Adrian Luck. Land is a small, unassuming space, with an open kitchen and framed imprints of broccoli as art. The kitchen team, headed by Luck and chef Tony Cridland, takes regular vegetables and turns them into the star of a seven-course meal. Aubergine gets scalloped for over four hours to swim in a punchy massaman curry. Deep in the heart of a simple rice porridge are caramelised sweet red onions. Squash is bathed in buttermilk and paired with a sunflower seed cream. Roast potato gets an upgrade with buttermilk dashi. And the humble beetroot ends the meal, moulded into a cake with caramelised oat ice cream and toffee sauce.
Land’s food offers a summary of the Brummie food scene: good food that will surprise and delight you.
The story was modified to include chef Tony Cridland name.