Is a Balti something eaten by drunken Brummies, a bucket, a joke or a metaphor? Journalist Ziauddin Sardar tells Special Correspondent Jo Ind why it is all four.
It might come as something as a surprise to those of us who like nothing more than a late night trip to Birmingham’s Stoney Lane with a bevy of friends and a can or two, but there is no such thing as a “Balti”.
Many of us love a trip to a curry house where we can take our own beer, look at menus in glass-topped tables and eat with a naan bread and our fingers.
We are aware that “balti” literally means “bucket” and imagine it refers to the little iron dish that the food is cooked and served in.
What we might not know is that no one cooks in a “balti.” The small dishes used to cook and serve food in “Balti” houses are actually called “karahis” and bear no resemblance to buckets at all.
In his book Balti Britain Ziauddin Sardar debunks this particular myth.
“In Urdu, the word balti means bucket - a receptacle, a pitcher, a vessel, a pail of the kind once lugged up a hill by Jack and Jill to fetch water.
“In the Indian subcontinent a balti is put to numerous uses. It can carry water for washing or taking a bath, and may even be used to flush the old-fashioned squatting lavatory.
“The roles and uses of the balti are as numerous and as diverse as Indian civilization itself yet one thing the balti has never been known for is a receptacle in which to cook food.”
So if that is the case, how did there come to be a belt of restaurants known as Balti houses in Birmingham?
That is the very question Ziauddin asks. He discovered, on a trip to Birmingham, that if you ask three different Balti restaurant owners where the term “Balti” comes from, they will give you three different answers.
His first port of call was Adil’s Restaurant on Stoney Lane owned by Rashid Mahmud, who was born in Birmingham but lived in Pakistan for several years.
Rashid’s father, Mohammed Arif, bought Adil’s in 1977 having already run a Dream House Cafe, serving rough and ready food to a largely male immigrant clientele.
When Mahmud took over the managing of the restaurant he bought in some innovations in an attempt to make it appeal to a more refined clientele and establish a Pakistani, rather than Indian, Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan, identity.
“My father’s generation did not have a surname. Well people in Pakistan, don’t, do they?” says Rashid, so Mahmud became the family name.
He introduced a tandoor, or oven, which is large enough to create a naan big enough to cover the whole table.
He says he came up with the term Balti in around 1981, claiming that a karahi is transformed into a Balti through the cooking.
“You’ve got to be honest to your tradition but you also have to move on,” he says. “When a karahi is treated in a specific way it becomes a Balti.”
Ziauddin’s next port of call was Al-Faisal’s, which is also on Stoney Lane. Al-Faisal’s is owned by Chaudhry Ajaib who migrated to Birmingham from Mirpur in 1957 with his father and uncles.
Chaudhry first opened a restaurant in 1976 - Adil’s - which he sold to the father of Rashid Mahmud, quoted above.
The following year he opened Al’Faisal’s which he claims is the original home of the Balti. He says he came up with the idea after travelling in Pakistan.
“While travelling in the northwestern provinces, further north from Peshawar, I came across a tribal people who cooked meat in a rough-and-ready way. These people are known as Baltis and their province is called Baltistan,” he says.
So there is another explanation for where the term Balti came from.
Ziauddin’s final port of call was Imran’s Restaurant and Sweethouse on the Ladypool Road.
Afzall Butt, the owner, came to Britain in 1969 and joined his elder brother in the restaurant business.
In 1979, he opened his own restaurant, named after his son who was born in the same year. The restaurant is now managed by his three sons all born and brought up in Birmingham.
So what does Afzall say a Balti is?
“It’s a joke. Hundred per cent joke,” he says. “It was an invention for the goras (white folk). A Balti is like curry. It exists and doesn’t exist. Do you know what a curry is? I have never had a curry in my life!
“We tried to civilise the natives by introducing different kinds of cuisine. In particular, we introduced the tandoor and karahi dishes. We soon discovered that the goras had problems pronouncing the word karahi, so as a joke we said why not call it a Balti. It will make life easier for the goras.”
So in three different restaurants there are three different explanations as to where the term Balti comes from.
Of the three, the one with that seems to be the most convincing is the latter and it is the one that persuaded Ziauddin. So does that him cynical?
“Not at all,” he says. “The Balti is a metaphor of integration. It is a story of re-invention, they are re-inventing a tradition.
“Tradition has to be re-invented so that it can live. When a tradition is not re-invented it becomes a custom and customs tend to be oppressive.
“But traditions have to live to bring things like continuity, community, confidence, trust and they live through being re-invented.”
That is a very positive spin to put on the Balti phenomenon. Does he not feel irritated by the ignorance of the “goras” gulping down their fantasies about Baltistan with every mouthful?
“I would if it was not so complex,” says Ziauddin, “but Asian people are so diverse and so complex that is almost impossible to get an idea of what the Asian community is all about.
“A ‘Balti’ is taking an Asian experience and making it into an understandable or manageable form. You need to move on from that, but it is a starting point.
“Both sides are playing a game and both sides are enjoying the game. The Asian community is re-inventing itself in a way that is understandable and the host community knows this.
“The Balti has performed a genuinely authentic miracle. British Asians can be authentic and true to themselves, and reclaim their history, in any number of different and innovative ways they choose.
“The Balti has not only changed British Asians - it has transformed the cultural landscape of Britain. It expresses the confidence of having arrived.”
* Balti Britain by Ziauddin Sardar is published by Granta and costs £20.