When JRR Tolkien –who spent all his infancy and youth in his Birmingham– was looking for inspiration in the middle of the last century for his works The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, he found it in the woods and fields around his house in the capital of the West Midlands. But when he had to feed Frodo and company to survive their adventures in the Middle-Earth, he did not find that inspiration, and had to invent the food his characters consumed.
Nowadays, food is one of the many attractions for visitors to Birmingham. Beside visiting Aston Mansion or the Ikon Gallery, travellers to Birmingham also seek out the restaurants in the ‘Balti Triangle’, in the south-eastern part of the city, which serve the Pakistani community its special dishes. According to the census of 2011, the Pakistanis are the second most important ethnic group in Birmingham (13% of the total population) after the British (53%). And thanks to those Pakistanis, and to that phenomenon called multiculturalism, the ‘Balti Triangle’ is in all of today’s guidebooks to the city. And not just that: the UK is currently trying to get the European Union to recognise Balti of Birmingham as a special tradition, as was done earlier with British free-range turkeys or the pigs called Gloustershire Old Spots.
But to occupy its position today, Balti cuisine has had to cast off some of the techniques and ingredients common to cooking in the Indian subcontinent and has catered more to the tastes of Western diners. For a start, it replaced ghee –a type of clarified butter– with vegetable oils like sunflower oil, which is lighter. It has also abandoned the strongest curries in favour of separate spices: cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, coriander, paprika and ginger. And finally, it did away with slow cooking in favour of a rapid preparation more appropriate for the current times. Thus chicken, lamb and vegetables like cauliflower are cooked in spicy sauces, and reach the table in the same recipients in which they were prepared –which are called balti– that make it possible to maintain all their aromas and flavours.