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‘It’s all my dad’s ever known’: The young families keeping the Birmingham balti alive

With Aktar Islam’s sublime modern Indian restaurant Opheem becoming Birmingham’s first ever two Michelin-star restaurant, the Second City’s food scene is quietly going from strength to strength in 2024. And it’s well-earned too. This isn’t a town too fond of hubris or vanity – certain other UK cities do a roaring trade in those particular currencies – but Birmingham deserves its spot in the sun and is now comfortably one of Britain’s best destinations to eat and drink. 

But while the city’s regenerated dining scene is worth celebrating, Birmingham’s balti heritage is under existential threat. 

The balti is Birmingham’s original culinary gift to the world, but today only a handful of restaurants remain following the balti house’s zenith in the ’90s. Its rise and fall has gone somewhat under the radar amid Birmingham’s continuing gastronomic accolades, but there are a passionate few still keeping the dream alive. And it starts with family. 

What is a balti?

Developed by Birmingham’s burgeoning Pakistani community in the mid-1970s, the balti is a one-pot curry cooked quickly, stir-fry style, over a searing heat. Using vegetable oil rather than ghee, the cooking takes place within a flat-bottomed wok, also used for eating.

Balti caramelisation
The balti’s distinctive caramelisation | Photograph: James March

While the balti is inspired by traditional Kashmiri recipes – and packing in spices like garam masala, cumin and turmeric – it was adjusted to suit Western tastes, which meant a cooking time of around 10 minutes. That combination of swift efficiency and fiery spices was intoxicating for a public who weren’t used to such effervescent flavours. But the real draw of the dish is the sweetness that dances around the balti bowl’s edges, offering a caramelised sensation distinct from the ubiquitous chicken tikka masala. 

The rise and fall of Birmingham’s iconic dish

The communities that gave birth to the balti lived around an area of south Birmingham encompassing the neighborhoods of Sparkbrook, Sparkhill and Balsall Heath, now affectionately known as the ‘Balti Triangle’. Culturally diverse and densely populated within rows of pre-war terraced houses, the area’s parades were lined with colourful grocery shops spilling out onto the pavement beneath rows of loose canopies. And squeezed in between many of them were balti houses. 

By the 1990s there were over 30 balti houses, many of which had dedicated followings and attracted everyone from early-evening family gatherings to gregarious late-night post-pub crowds. This was a broad church, bringing communities together, and all were invited. 

A balti cooked over a flame
A balti cooked over a flame | Photograph: James March

But as the new millennium dawned, things couldn’t remain on such a high. For a host of reasons, including rising rent costs and changing tastes, many of these restaurants closed down, never to return. Now there are just a handful left. 

One thread that runs through the balti’s history is the role of family. Though the loss of original trailblazing balti house Adil’s in 2021 was heartbreaking, two stalwarts from the 1980s are still going strong and still very much family-oriented.  

It’s my dad’s place and I have to look after it

‘More than anything, we’re friends,’ says Imran Ditta, joint owner at Royal Watan on Birmingham’s Pershore Road. ‘Rather than having that father-and-son relationship, we’re like mates. That’s the way we see it and it’s a nice bond to have. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be at this restaurant.’

One of Birmingham’s original authentic balti houses, Royal Watan opened its doors in 1984, when Imran’s father would slavishly work a daytime factory gig before starting a shift serving baltis in the evening. 

‘It got busier and busier, and then Dad jacked his job in at his factory in Tyseley,’ Imran explains. ‘There used to be queues out the door.’

The family at Royal Watan
The family at Royal Watan | Photograph: Jack Spicer Adams

It’s easy to be wistful about that ever-distant heyday. At 40, Ditta is in the unique position of witnessing both the tail end of balti’s peak years and its decline – but he’s still young enough to manipulate social media to keep Royal Watan relevant. 

There’s a white neon slogan at the entrance reading #Ended up at Royal Watan, while a recent renovation has given the restaurant an Instagram-friendly cool grey colour palette with lush green flourishes. They’ve also leaned back on family-favourite Kashmiri recipes, and footage of their extra-large naans and Kashmiri pizza has collected thousands of views on TikTok. 

https://www.tiktok.com/embed/v2/7354058378114600225?lang=zh-CN&referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.timeout.com%2Fbirmingham%2Frestaurants%2Fbirmingham-balti-history

‘This is where it comes back to family,’ he says. ‘We’ve started introducing our family recipes. This [dish] is one our nan used to cook – Lassawalla Gosht. It’s absolutely beautiful.’

From grandma’s recipes to the restaurant’s day-to-day operations, everything at Royal Watan is kept in the family. Imran runs the front of house while his chef brother Arfan mans the kitchen; their uncle sends hard-to-find spices back from Pakistan and, of course, there’s the looming figure of their father, who is now retired and splits his time between Pakistan and the UK.

‘It’s his baby, the only thing he’s ever known,’ says Ditta. ‘It’s my dad’s place and I have to look after it.’

If I didn’t get involved, this place might be a burger joint

Within the chaotic streets of the Balti Triangle’s Ladypool Road is a restaurant that might be considered the standard bearer for the balti. But Shabab’s was something of a gamble when it opened in 1987.

‘My older brother found out about this place that used to be an ice cream shop and the owner was looking to sell up,’ says owner Zafar Hussein, discussing his brother’s grand idea to open a restaurant. 

‘My dad had zero faith, but my mum believed in him,’ he explains. ‘They remortgaged the house and asked family and friends for a bit of money. It was a big risk, but here we are 37 years later.’

Zafar Hussein
Zafar Hussein | Photograph: James March

While several balti houses in the area have been replaced by gaudy burger joints and brightly-lit dessert parlours, Shabab’s has remained a torch carrier for Birmingham’s beloved dish. So beloved is the place that it attracted a visit from the BBC’s Hairy Bikers, now immortalised in a portrait in the entrance where a slightly younger incarnation of Hussein is engaged in conversation with Si King and the late Dave Myers.  

Shabab’s has been a proud family affair since its inception, with Zafar eventually taking over from his brother and father. He credits the restaurant’s survival to this lineage.

‘A lot of the balti houses have closed down for various reasons. One being [there’s] nobody in the family to take them over,’ says Hussein. ‘If I didn’t get involved in the restaurant early, this place might now be a burger joint.’

Zafar Hussein cooking
Photograph: James March

The involvement – and passion – of the next generation is vital to keep these special restaurants alive. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that ‘shabab’ translates to youth or youthfulness in Urdu. And while some young people might buckle under the weight of that obligation, at Shabab’s, the overriding feeling is hope. 

‘My nephews are here, and I trust them,’ he says. ‘37 years and three generations is what has kept us together as a family, growing from strength to strength, enabling us to deliver the best balti for generations to come.’

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