Balti from Brum: Birmingham’s most celebrated curry

Balti from Brum: Birmingham’s most celebrated curry
Skip the fish and chips and make this delicious English-meets-Indian curry.

Skip the fish and chips and make this delicious English-meets-Indian curry.

Back in March, my fiance and took our pre-wedding honeymoon trip to the UK and Ireland. What excited me most about the trip (besides visiting the Doctor Who museum in Cardiff) was the prospect of sampling the many global cuisines that these countries have to offer. They have become a melting pot of cultures over the past few centuries due to English colonization, immigration, etc., and this in turn now characterizes their food and the way people eat.

While perusing the travel book I brought along, I learned of Balti curry, a now renowned English dish that was created in Birmingham (known as “Brum” by the locals) by North Indian and Pakistani immigrants in the 1970s.

This Punjabi-influenced curry is very aromatic, filled with warming spices, tomatoes, onions and cilantro, and can be made with meat, vegetables or paneer (an Indian fresh cheese). It’s a one-pot dish traditionally served in a metal or copper, two-handled dish called a “Balti”, which means “bucket” in Hindi. Instead of eating it with rice (or even silverware), the diner will scoop it up with naan or chapati flatbread. The best thing about Balti is that it cooks up quickly, like a stir fry, and can be completed in about half an hour — no need to watch over a simmering pot for hours.

Don’t be intimidated by the myriad of spices used in Balti: most of them can be found in specialty grocery stores that have a bulk spice section and the rest can be obtained from an Indian grocer (which is a culinary adventure in itself to visit). I’ve even seen a Balti spice blend sold at Whole Foods under their own brand. As for the protein, beef, lamb, pork or even vegetables can easily be substituted for the chicken.

No need for a passport here as you can take your tastebuds for a trip to jolly old Brum with this easy to prepare, savory Balti dish.

Chicken Balti Curry
Makes 2 servings; adapted from: britishfood.about.com

Spice mix:
1 teaspoon Garam Masala spice
4 fresh or dried curry leaves, crushed
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon nigella seeds (a.k.a.: black cumin)
3 green (Thai or Indian) chilies, chopped (substitute a few jalapeños)
4 cardamom pods, split

Curry:
High-heat cooking oil, as needed
½ teaspoon mustard seeds, crushed
1 white or yellow onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root
2 large chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 teaspoon palm sugar (substitute brown sugar)
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 can diced tomatoes, including liquid
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 large tomato, seeded and diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cilantro, roughly chopped

Combine all of the spices in a small dish and set aside. Heat a large sauté pan or wok over medium-high heat and add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds and cook until they start to pop, then stir in the chopped onion and chilies. Cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions become soft. Add the garlic and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant.

Make a hole in the mixture and add the chicken and sugar. Cook for about 5 minutes, searing on all sides. Add tomato paste to pan and stir everything together. Stir in the tomatoes and their liquid, then the broth. Lower the heat and simmer the curry for about 10-15 minutes, when the curry has thickened and the chicken is cooked through. Stir in the tomato, let it cook for 2-3 minutes, then turn off the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve hot in a bowl with a side of naan or flatbread.

Balti curry 2

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