Well tonight, the quest for the perfect Balti officially comes to an end, as I present my findings to a public debate on ‘how the Balti was invented’, at the Midlands Arts Centre. It starts at 7.30 and the full details of the event can be found on this page, but in the meantime, here’s a couple of my slides to whet your appetite:
Even Heston uses self-raising flour for his naans, and adds baking powder to it! Perhaps I should give up looking for a naan leavened without chemicals:
Well, this was the last Balti before I present my findings to the public debate at mac on Thursday. I decided to head to one of the likely homes of the Balti, Adil’s restaurant on Ladypool Road (temporarily whilst their Stoney Lane home is refurbished). The small exterior of Adil’s temporary residence belied the rather spacious interior which fellow-diner Matt likened to a scout hut with it’s tatty wooden floor and polystyrene suspended ceiling. Still, the menu’s underneath glass-topped tables were a charming reminder of a bygone Balti golden era. Adil’s has been around for an astonishing 33 years, and claims on it’s website to be the “very premises from where the Balti method of cooking was introduced to Britain.” Perhaps that debate will be answered at Thurday’s debate, but for now, let me tell you about the curry…
I was somewhat taken a back when the waiter responded to my “vegetable Balti and plain naan please” request with “exactly which vegetable Balti would you like sir?”. My quest has never been so free! As they didn’t have a mixed vegetable Balti on the menu, and I think it’s pretty insulting to order off menu in any establishment, I went for the vegetable, chana, dal and spinach Balti. As the jet black Balti bowl arrived at the table radiating like a lump of kryptonite, I was glad that my quest had begun and ended with a traditional Balti experience. This one was thick with more-red-than-brown gravy, which tasted pretty balanced spice wise, perhaps a little heavy handed on the paprika, and with an unfortunate slight burnt taste in the back of the throat. As promised the Balti was full of chana (chickpeas), dal (yellow split lentils), spinach (shredded), but pretty easy on the vegetables – in fact apart from a solitary slice of raw tomato, the only detectable veg were a few small new potatoes, almost certainly of the tinned variety. This wasn’t a bad Balti though – if they had added some fresh veg and coriander, and managed to get rid of the niggling burnt-ness in the sauce, it would actually be a really great curry.
Harrumph, I’m getting depressed about this now. Another standard naan bread made with self raising flour, on the dry side, would have been better brushed with a little ghee. Cheap though at only a quid.
Overall I didn’t have a terrible meal, and I was glad to be ending my quest at one of the potential homes of the Balti, eating a traditional version of this famous dish.
I took my camera into the kitchen at Mint Restaurant last week, and the chef’s kindly allowed me to photograph them at work. Here’s a few pics:
My Roop Chanda starter – lovely and crisp on the outside with meaty white flesh, accompanied by a well dressed salad:
A tray-ful of naan dough ready to be rolled out and cooked:
One of their naan’s cooking in the tandoor:
Chef rolling out ‘my’ naan dough (see previous post):
Chicken curry being cooked:
So this one was another rule breaker, Mint is squarely outside of the Balti triangle. However when you’re given a personal invite by the owner, a guided tour of the kitchens, and the opportunity to make your own naan to accompany your meal, who could say no!
Gentlemanly partner-owner Afthab Rahman, who’s joining me at this weeks public Balti debate, had done his research, and subsequently my vegetable Balti was stuffed full of okra which I adore, alongside potato, tomato, aubergine, peas, and fresh green chillies – it was nice and hot, which almost overpowered me at one point but I was probably gobbling it down too fast. The Balti was heavy on the vegetables and less so on the gravy, but that’s not to say it was lacking in flavour – it was a vibrant curry with a fresh citrus tang and punchy fresh coriander, in the same ball park as the curry I had at Grameen Khana, though not quite reaching their dizzy heights. The only disappointment really was that it wasn’t cooked in the traditional Balti way, instead coming to the table in a clean steel serving dish, with a plate for decanting onto.
Although I’m a bit biased, having taken my own dough to the restaurant to be made into naan to accompany my meal, flavour-wise, this was the best naan yet. Instead of the usual self-raising flour and egg combo used in every restaurant I’ve eaten in so far, I used a yoghurt, milk and plain flour recipe where the yoghurt, milk and a little of the flour is prefermented with a little bakers yeast, before adding water, more flour, salt and fennel seeds, and allowing it to rise. By the time I arrived at the restaurant, the dough had risen nicely, and was ready to cook. The tandoori chef expertly rolled it out and shaped it by slapping between his oiled palms, before gracefully chucking it onto the side wall of the tandoor for about 90 seconds of cooking. It was skillfully removed with cast iron tandoor tongs, and served nice and hot. It smelled and tasted slightly sour from the fermented yoghurt, just as it should, and a far cry from the chemical smell of ‘normal’ naan breads (we had one at the table for comparison). It didn’t taste yeasty as there was a relatively small amount in the dough, and if anything the fennel seeds rather dominated the flavour, I’ll reduce the amount next time or include onion seeds instead. Disappointingly the naan didn’t puff up half as much as the normal naan’s and so didn’t have the fluffy mouth feel that we’ve come to expect. The dough was a little over-proofed when it came to cooking it though so it may have already expended most of it’s carbon dioxide, I’ll try baking it a little earlier next time.
So overall a good experience at Mint – they have lots of Bangladeshi specialities on the menu, such as the perfectly cooked sea fish Roop Chanda that I started with, and they definitely have one eye on the environment when it comes to things like recycling and food sourcing, so definitely worth hunting down and supporting if you’re over in Yardley. Find out more on their website.
For Balti number six it was time to return to the Ladypool Road, and to the rule book. This one was a last minute surprise, and it was free too! I was joined at this highly accoladed Ladypool Road restaurant by freelance journalist Chris Arnot, who was researching for a piece on the Birmingham Balti. It’s a nice clean place with modern art on the wall, and simple wood-effect tables. I ordered the usual, here’s what I thought…
Served in a searingly hot black Balti dish, and on our table within about 8 minutes of ordering, I was immenseley pleased with this very fresh tasting, seemingly authentic Balti. The vegetables were perfectly cooked – melt-in-the-mouth courgette and al dente carrot chunks, along with plenty of potato (which I love in curry), peas, onions and fresh tomato. Pre-cooking the veg was the very first task performed by chef Azam, we were informed by our busy waiter (the only one on on a hectic Thursday evening), which I suppose shouldn’t have surprised me given the speed of delivery of our food. There was plenty of fresh chilli in there too, along with a definite smokiness, presumably from paprika. Although this wasn’t as good a curry as Grameen Khana, it was definitely the best Balti so far – a deliciously authentic experience!
Sadly another soda bread naan, though it was cooked well. I didn’t bother confirming whether it was made with self-raising flour with the waiter, the chemical whiff was instant on tearing open the bread. I’ve heard about a great naan shop over in Cape Hill, perhaps I’ll venture over there soon…
The Balti really was fab – I will definitely be returning to Al Frash, together with a slow pre-dinner stroll up the Ladypool Road, it’s the kind of place I would bring visitors for an authentic Balti experience.
I was enticed to Hajees in the Stratford road by the Punjabi specialities that had been promised in the review on the Balti Birmingham directory, and as it was my Birthday, the rule book was definitely getting thrown out of the window. Ironically for a restaurant in a converted pub (M&B’s The Antelope), they have a strict no alcohol policy, so we ordered an excellent mango lassi with our meals. After bizarre debate with the waiter about ordering the Magz (sheeps brains – “no don’t order that, who would want to eat brains?!”), I opted for the lambs trotters (Paya) instead.
Firstly, this was no Balti and it didn’t claim to be, but this was my birthday and I didn’t care. Secondly, if you go on a date at Hajee’s don’t order the Paya – it ain’t pretty to eat. Fortunately I was among friends, and they didn’t seem to mind me shovelling bones into my mouth and munching on the marrow, meat, and sinew – this could have been a disatastorous (and chewy) meal if under -done, but these trotters had clearly been braised for a very long time, leaving them succombing and almost sweet. They were surrounded by a gorgeous thin sauce, tasting somewhere between a well made lamb gravy and a madras curry – I was glad the waiter warned me off the magz.
Better than most of the naan I’ve eaten so far – it still had a faint chemical whiff, but smelled yeasty too – the waiter assured me they used both yeast and self-raising flour, which seems odd, but it’s definitely an improvement.
I’d like to return to Hajee’s when this project’s over, they have a decent menu which is fortunately about half the size of a lot of curry houses. There are a few other things I’d like to try – I might even brave the Magz!