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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Rule Baltannia

In May I'll be traveling to the South with Bruce to visit places I've never been, eat food I've never eaten, and see some of my relatives, including Mom.

But while my ticket says Atlanta, GA, I find myself dreaming it says Heathrow instead.

Unfortunately, I can't afford to visit both places this year, so instead I'm participating in Becks and Posh's St. George's Day Fish & Quips food blogathon, celebrating the joys of English food.

My contribution to this anthology of all things Anglo:

Balti cuisine.

Originating in the 1970s, Balti cuisine is an Anglo-Asian culinary phenomenon relatively unknown in America and on the Indian Subcontinent. It's birthplace centers in what now is referred to as the Balti Triangle of Birmingham, England; a one-mile area comprising over 50 restaurants, or balti houses.

Birmingham, or Brum, is England's second largest city and its most industrialized. Following the post-war economic boom, it experienced a massive wave of immigration from the Indian Subcontinent (primarily from Bangladesh) of men and their families looking jobs in factories and foundries. This migration, in turn, has made Brum into the least racially homogenous of all of England's core cities. Conversely, the rest of England is whiter than sour cream.

Today, tourism is one of Brum's largest industries – in part because of the fabulous abundance of balti houses, but to a large extent the waves of Duran Duran salmon who swim up-stream each year to spawn underneath the Birmingham Rotunda.

I haven't been to Birmingham or, for what it's worth, to me neither. But I have been to Brick Lane in London.

Brick Lane, in the historic East End, is a one road curry extravaganza full of restaurants and barkers who, if chosen, will lead you by the hand to their home restaurant where they will likely receive a commission for the 15th fickle tourist of the day.

Once seated in one of these dives, you will be handed a menu that will list a sikhload of dishes that you, if you're an American like me, will be clueless about and had no idea even existed. First, you must choose between balti, madras, bhuna, vindaloo, jalfrezi, rogan, dopiaza, and biryani. After you've settled with one of those categories, you must decide if you want chicken, lamb, vegetable and, in the rare case, beef. It's a daunting array of menu items that, if you're a newbie to the Brit-Asian curry/balti house scene, could make you scream bloody bhangra.

For example, check out the differences between a standard British Asian restaurant menu and an Indian American one. At first glance, they seem unrelated. However, upon further inspection many of the dishes are the same. It's as if the Brits say "give me the cuisine first and the ingredients second." Whereas Americans will say "I care more about the ingredient first, and just do with them whatever sounds good." Frankly, I prefer the British method since it automatically focuses on the essence of the cuisine rather than the details.

But you know, that's just how Americans are. So hung up on the details, they can't see the food for the cuisine – or the quagmire for the Iraq.

Anyhoo, Brick Lane in London is also in the middle of Banglatown and as such - and as Balti cuisine has migrated from Brum to London and beyond - has quickly become the Balti Belt of Banglatown. Balti houses abound and balti-style dishes can be found in most restaurants.

To be certain, Balti has become Britain's top curry house fave, leaving Chicken Tikka Masala still scratching in its dust.

There's some speculation as to where the word "balti" (as it pertains to the cuisine) comes from. Some say it's a region, others say it's a type of cooking vessel. I happen to think it's short for "Count Baltar", the evil cyborg in the original Battlestar Galactica series who was fond of terrorizing the rag-tag fleet of human survivors from the comfort of his flying saucer – which coincidentally (or is it?) has the wok-like appearance of what balti dishes are cooked and served in.

It's safe, however, to assume that the word balti in this context is a, ahem, Briticism – much like Chicken Tikka Masala and even the word "curry" itself.*

*Note: The English word "curry" has no direct translation into any of the 15 or more languages found on the Indian Subcontinent and is thought to be a British bastardization of the Hindi words "karai/karahi", which is the wok-like cooking vessel used to make a balti.

I am not an expert on balti by far. However, from what I can tell, balti dishes are medium-hot, somewhat dry, curries based on curry spices, lots of onions, meat (often chicken or prawns), and tomatoes. Most of the ingredients are prepared in advanced and then assembled quickly in a hot cooking vessel similar to a wok. Unlike the standard side order of basmati rice, most balti dishes are eaten with naan (bread).

For my homemade balti experience, I consulted several different websites with recipes, information, and history and I looked at a few different online restaurant menus. None of the South Asian cookbooks I own (all, except one old Curry Club cookbook, published in the US) contained a balti recipe, so I used the best one I could find online.

I've got to be up front with you – this is perhaps the best curry recipe I've ever made. And, seeing as I just dined at Shalimar on Polk Street yesterday and had the closest approximation to balti (Chicken Karahi) they have, this dish is far superior.

I'd like to thank Brett and his friend Brian for posting this recipe. I have fine-tuned it to my tastes and preferences and will share it with you...right now!

Chicken Balti for Yanks and Ex-Pats
Serves 3 - 4

Stage 1 ingredients
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 cup chicken stock
2 – 3 cloves garlic, grated
2-inch piece of ginger, grated
1 rounded tablespoon of tomato paste
2 teaspoons curry powder (Ship Madras brand)

Stage 2 ingredients
2 boneless, skinless whole chicken breasts, cubed
1 humongous yellow onion, diced
Plenty of vegetable cooking oil
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt

Stage 3 ingredients
2 teaspoons of grated fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large green jalapeno, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped green onion
Balti Masala comprising a mixture of 1 teaspoon of each: ground turmeric, cumin, 1 bay leaf and 1 black cardamom.
1 teaspoon of cayenne powder
½ teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoons of ground fenugreek
1 teaspoon of Garam Masala
1/2 cup of chopped, fresh cilantro
2 medium tomatoes, quartered

Brian's recipe calls for frying the chicken first. However, I'm modifying this recipe by making the curry sauce first.

Stage 1: The Curry Sauce

Add the 2 tablespoons oil to saucepan and turn the heat to medium-high. When hot, add the diced medium onion, turn the heat down to medium and fry until the onions soften up. Then, add the garlic and ginger and saute for a minute or so. Next, add the curry powder and cook an additional 2 minutes. After, stir in the chicken stock, remove from the burner and allow several minutes to cool. When cool, process in a food processor or blender until smooth and then return to the saucepan. Next, stir in the tomato paste and bring to simmer; simmer for 5 minutes. When finished, cover and keep warm.

Stage 1 3/4: The Naan
Look, it makes no sense to try and replicate a tandoori oven in your kitchen. Trust me: I've tried.

Instead, turn your oven to it's lowest setting and pick up your phone. Dial the number to your closest Indian/Pakistani restaurant, order the naan (usually around $1 - $2 for a large piece) and go pick it up. Better yet, have it delivered. When it arrives, turn off your oven and stick the bread (wrapped in foil) inside to keep warm while you finish your curry.

Stage 2: The Chicken and Onions
Add a cup or so of oil to a wok and heat on high. When slightly smoking, add the chicken and stir fry in small batches, using a slotted spoon to stir and remove the pieces. Make sure your chicken pieces are somewhat dry before you put them in the hot oil, otherwise you'll get a lot of splatter. When the chicken pieces start to take on a golden color, remove to a large bowl or plate.

Next, pour out most of the oil leaving 2 to 3 tablespoon in the wok. Then add the onions and stir fry until they start to become transparent. Add the curry powder and 1 teaspoon of salt and fry another minute or so. Add the chicken stock and stir, making sure to scrape off "the love" from the bottom and sides of the wok. Keep the heat on high and reduce the liquid to a thick sauce, banking the chicken pieces up on the side of the wok if needed.

When finished, remove the mixture to a large bowl or plate and wipe off the gunk from the wok with lots of clean, dry paper towels.

Stage 3: The Balti
"Arrange all the ingredients near to the cooker as the process requires almost constant attention once started."

Heat 2 tablespoons of cooking oil in a wok set on medium heat and fry the jalapenos and green onions briefly. Next add the garlic and ginger – stir a few times - then add all of the dry spices. Careful not to burn the spices: if you need, remove the wok from the burner and continue to stir. Oh, and you may want to open some windows.

After cooking the dry mixture for a few minutes, add the Stage 2 ingredients and mix. Then, add the Stage 1 (curry sauce) ingredients and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Lastly, add the tomatoes and half of the chopped cilantro and cook until the tomatoes start to soften.

That's it.

To serve, spoon into bowls or, if you have them, karahis and serve with plenty of naan. No additional chutneys or relishes are needed.

I'm sorry...what's that?

Oh yeah: TYRA MAIL!

Proceed to the living room. There you will find your favorite reality game show, America's Next Top (quickly forgotten) Model, just coming on the telly. This balti was made for ANTM. Not because the dish is low cal – trust me, eating too many pieces of naan with oily baltis will turn you into America's Next Top Waddle ("kiss my fat ass!").

No, it goes with this show because balti cuisine is exactly what you want to be eating when suddenly confronted with important life questions such as:

Do you think Brittany's fake?

Behold! Crucial mysteries of the universe revealed:

Life doesn't make sense sometimes.

ANTM is balti. Twiggy: balti. Nigel Barker: motherfuckin' crazy balti.

Miss Jay: not balti. Miss Jay is just a big silly drag queen, but I love her anyway.

Bacon Press readers: the judges have decided. This chicken balti will proceed to the next round to see who will become America's Next Top Balti.

Will you?



Blogger Chubbypanda said...

That curry looks lush. It just needs some suet and sultanas the size of your thumb. =)

1:02 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

you are a freakin genius.
that is the hottest post for fish and quips so far.

ps - i have to try making that too, though don't expect me to watch ANTM, that's all,

thank you!

5:40 PM  
Blogger Lan said...

Another well informed (or well researched) post. (I'm sure they all are but I can only say that when the subject is something I know a bit about).

I work within walking distance of Brick Lane and, in fact, walked down the street yesterday between meetings. It's not what it was; the restaurants are full of tourists (and not locals - always a bad sign).

However, it's still very good for the 'Indian' (I use that as a collective term - more Bangladeshi and a few other cultures, such as Nepalese) sweet shops and grocery stores.

My favourite restaurant, not far way, is Cafe Spice Namaste in Whitechapel.

My understanding of 'balti' is that it's the British (West Midlands) term for the 'karahi' cooking pot. So, any non-Brits wanting a 'balti' should look on their menu or in their recipe book for 'karahi'. Yours looks wonderful.

When a Texan friend visited me, he wanted to eat at UK-Indian and UK-Chinese restaurants because he knew from previous visits that the menus and food were *so* different to what he could get in Houston.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Ed Bruske said...

So much great information. Great tour of British curry country and a great cooking demonstration. You had me right up to the chicken breasts: would love something with a bit more oomph.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Po said...

Having grown up and raised in the Birmingham Area I know all about Baltis. They are like comfort food, like country fried steak and biscuits and gravy is for my husband!!

Thank You for sharing the recipe.


6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

best use of 'Tyra Mail' ever :D

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curry is actually a real word in malayalam (language of state of Kerala in India ) and it is part of the word 'torcurry' in begali (the language spoken in state of Bengal (India) and in Bangladesh) in general which refers to food with sauces (not dry). However unlike British cuisine, no one in India will ever use anything called curry powder, but will use individual spices (which are not same for every curries).

Also 'balti' means bucket in bengal and bangladesh. Specially made steel 'baltis' are used serve food during weddings and other festivals. I think that is where the 'balti-cuisine' word arises from

3:32 PM  

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