Putting the 'Bowl' in Balti
The team bringing balti bowls back to Brum
Andy Munro is doing some mental maths. The cacophony of noise around us is quite something. Probably every person in this factory has a hangover — it's the day after England lost — but you couldn't tell it by the work rate. "Two thousand five hundred," he says. "Roughly." Two thousand five hundred baltis this man has eaten since the 1980s, when he had his first. "I have at least one a week and the night before I'll have egg and chips to make sure I'm balti sharp."
We both burst into laughter, but I don't think he's joking. This, after all, is the man whose passion for balti is so great that he worked with a raft of Brum balti houses to apply (unsuccessfully) for a European Food Trademark of Authenticity. "They couldn't get their heads around it," explains Andy. "The Eurocrats, I mean. That balti isn't a set of ingredients and it's not just the name of the bowl. It's a process. It's not a recipe, it's a method. Never mind," he says marching into the factory. "Onwards!"
Onwards, indeed. Andy, who's retired from his work for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs with more than a little help from his daughter Lora ("it's all her really, they just wheel me out to waffle from time-to-time") now make and market Birmingham balti dishes forged right here, in Kings Norton. I don't suppose you can call them handmade in that a machine with 200 tonnes of pressure (see above) forces a carbon steel disc into the famous bowl shape. But they're made by Birmingham Prototypes Limited who, by their very name, make small batch steel products to order. Precision perfect. Once a colossal machine forces the steel from top and bottom into that bowl, lasers (below) are used to cut the bowl from the excess and handles are hand-pinned in place (bottom). This factory is astonishing. All sparks and noise and buzz. It suits Andy's effervescent demeanour. Born and raised in the Balti Triangle he's been championing the dish for nigh-on 35 years and I can't imagine he's lost any of his excitement along the way.
It was back in the 80s that Andy had that first balti, at Azim's on Lozells Road, a restaurant that's still there to this day. "I can only describe the difference between the sizzling balti experience and being served curry and rice on a silver platter as like comparing a live football match with all its buzz and excitement with recorded highlights on the lounge TV," says the Birmingham City season ticket holder.
He was so gripped by the dish that he began trying more and more, writing reviews after every visit, reviews that went into loose leaf folders photocopied for all members of a newly formed balti club. It became a guide of sorts, and that guide fell into the hands of the then Evening Mail. The Mail asked Andy to write a proper guide, all bound up in book form, which they would pay for. He jumped at the chance. The Essential Street Balti Guide was the biggest selling book in Waterstones, Birmingham, that Christmas, way back when. "It might have had something to do with the fact it only cost a quid," laughs Andy. More latterly he has penned Going for a Balti: The Story of Birmingham’s Signature Dish, which is available here for £7.99.
But today Andy is more about the bowl than the book. For the first time in over 25 years authentic steel balti bowls are once again being manufactured in Brum since the closure of a Smethwick factory in the mid-90s, and it's all down to Andy and Lora. Incredibly the bowls come with a lifetime guarantee.
"An authentic balti needs three things," he tells me, now calling me into a quiet corner of the factory to emphasise the importance of this bit. "It needs to be cooked in veg oil not ghee — which actually makes it more healthy than you might suspect. It needs to be fast-cooked individually. But most importantly — most importantly, Tom — it has to be served up in the balti dish it was cooked in, so it retains all those flavours and keeps the caramelisation from the cooking process. The slight sweetness that comes from that is vital."
I ask Andy where he takes out of towners to showcase our city's civic dish. "I alternate between a few," he says, his smile returning. "There's Shababs in the Balti Triangle, The Royal Watan on the Pershore Road [near Cannon Hill's nature reserve] and The Shahi Nan Kabab House, on the Stratford Road. Spice Merchant in Kings Heath are making them the authentic way too. But the other day I went to a place called The Khyber Pass in Alum Rock which was fantastic. I'm always trying new places. That's the thing, you see," he leans in. "I may want people to cook baltis at home but not to replace going out for one — but in addition to going out for one. Our Balti Triangle — it's more of a quadrangle these days — should be a tourism epicentre. A focal point. Too often it feels like an afterthought. It needs signposting across the city. We need to champion these places and then champion them some more, or they will vanish. Like so many already have."
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