‘You cannot beat the vegetable baltis over in Sparkbrook,’ enthuses Colin, my grandly-turbanned Sikh cab driver, in a fierce Brummie accent, ‘it is to die for, but not literally, we all get on up here!’ he quips. So begins my introduction to the Balti triangle, Southeast of Birmingham’s heaving, modern city centre. It is a well-established melting pot, half a dozen streets being home to a vibrant Asian quarter, the majority of residents having roots in Pakistan’s east; Lahore and Kashmir. The area is under sporadic reconstruction since, in 2005, Sparkbrook found itself battered by 4 minutes of freak winds in Britain’s worst tornado in 30 years. Undeterred the British born second, third and fourth generations continue to make a success of all things Pakistani. From Uncle’s Home Stores, selling household goods and specialised cooking equipment, to the , bespoke and bejewelled sari making, to indigenous sweets (ladoo, burfi and para) and authentic gourmet cooking, they are a tough lot, hewn from hard labour and perseverance in the face of discrimination and hardship. The first wave of determined, Muslim migrants settled in this triangle of roads from the early 1960s when the established Irish residents, finding greater social acceptance became upwardly mobile and headed to the more genteel outlying suburbs. The neglected streets and cheap housing soon began to fill with newly arrived Pakistanis, seeking work at the nearby Lucas plant and the surrounding automotive factories. They brought with them their families, and their unique, spicy recipes; shops soon sprung up providing the fresh ingredients for a piquant taste of home like the unique Pakistani red carrots, renowned for their sweetness, or pre-packed fenugreek seeds and the ubiquitous ginger and garlic purée.
With the multi-faith mix demanding no beef or pork, the Lahore truckers’ favourite curry, cooked up in a hubcap (very spicy with chicken or lamb on the bone) is credited as the forefather of the Balti, according to veteran chef Mohammed Asram at the Al Frash Restaurant on Ladypool Road. ‘The bone gives flavour and we know what we are eating!’ The famous, deliciously spicy Balti is a uniquely Birmingham invention (the fast-heating pressed steel bowl was originally made only here).
With no messy bones for the indigenous Brummies, Balti is chunked fillet meat, fast cooked (often bursting into flames) on the hob in a base of onions or tomatoes, ginger and garlic purée, fenugreek, garam masala (literally ‘hot mixture’) and vegetable oil. It is served sizzling in the Balti Bowl, and always mopped up with naan (flat bread), ‘rice with balti is sacrilege,’ claims Mohammed.
The speedy dish with its fresh, healthy ingredients went down well with the hungry locals whilst the unlicensed premises meant that punters were free to bring their own wine and the Balti Houses became a landmark feature of Sparkbrook.
Over time, visitors and locals alike have developed a more cosmopolitan palette, so a few of the culinary Sparkbrook natives have dared to move on from the Birmingham balti house tradition, preferring instead an authentic Pakistani cuisine. Nowhere is this more evident than up on Stratford Road in what was the once fearsome Antlelope pub ‘that even the navvies would avoid,’ according to Colin the Cabbie. Eight months ago, it became the alcohol-free Hajees Spices, with leopard print seats, original oak panelling, immense murals and authentic flock wallpaper. It is a place for the young, twenty-something parties and Anglo/Pakistani couples bring the restaurant to life as evening falls. The menu invites you to eat Maghz (sheep brains – not as tasty as it sounds) and Paya (lamb trotters in oil); traditional delicacies from the Punjabi region of Pakistan, and according to the chef, Mustapha, strictly for the locals! For the less brave there is hearty Lahori Kahara Ghosht (balti-style chicken) served in a karahi (like an oversize earthenware balti dish)which fuses the new owners heritage with the best of Asian Birmingham.
Meanwhile, the recently refurbished Al Faisals sits at the heart of the triangle (on Stony Lane), amongst the semi-derelict shopfronts and the builders’ vans that litter the area. It is a thoroughly modern affair, replete with acres of glass and trendy art. Business lunches run alongside family diners during the week. ‘The Art of Kashmiri Cooking’ is emblazoned across its slick black menus; a proud and confident slogan. Omar, the grandson of the 1980 founder, brings me his personal favourite, a plate of tandoori-orange spiced lamb chops that are intensely tasty, caked in an explosive, mouth watering salty, charcoal marinade. I tuck in, holding on by the foil-clad bone. They are literally mouth-watering like a delicate, version of the street food one might enjoy on a kerbside as the rickshaws scurry by. Amongst giant flatbreads (naan and paratha), an overflowing platter of freshly prepared salad and home bottled mango lassie, they serve lamb or chicken curry on the bone, the scent of turmeric, cumin and coriander rising with the steam from the modern white china. Omar is justifiably proud of his grand Anglo/Pakistani restaurant. ‘I like to welcome the gourmet lovers and still feed my loyal customers,’ he smiles.
Sparkbrook has come a long way from its humble roots; it is optimistic and forward looking whilst keeping one foot soundly in Pakistan. It is clearly not Kashmir and it is not only Birmingham Balti. It is a delicious marriage of the two.