Birmingham's Balti Triangle, a renowned area in the city, has long been hailed as the birthplace of the Balti curry and one of Birmingham’s cultural landmarks. The Balti Triangle has a rich history shaped by the multicultural inhabitants of the city and the culinary traditions that they have brought to the UK from overseas. However, in recent years the number of balti houses in the area has significantly declined, primarily due to the impact of the pandemic and the ongoing cost of living crisis. But there are other reasons for the decline of the Balti triangle - primarily in the changing of people’s tastes since the boom in Indian curry houses in the 90s and 2000s. Today there are many more options and cuisines in the area compared to twenty years ago - and with the hospitality industry already suffering, what future is there for Birmingham’s iconic Balti triangle?
The History of the Balti Triangle
The Balti Triangle's roots can be traced back to Birmingham's diverse population and its culinary evolution. Indian restaurants have been present in England since the 19th century, primarily serving Asian sailors and students, but it was in the 1950s and 60s that they multiplied to cater to the newly arrived South Asian factory workers arriving from the commonwealth countries. Birmingham curry houses have existed since at least 1945, when Abdul Aziz, one of the first Bangladeshi immigrants to settle in the city, began serving curry and rice to policemen, lawyers, and barristers from a café on Steelhouse Lane. These restaurants adapted their menus for a working-class white clientele, giving rise to the boom in Indian curry houses in the 70s.
However, whilst we in the UK broadly associate curries and curry houses with India, the influence is much further reaching. Migrants brought flavours from all over the subcontinent, with spices and influences from Pakistan, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. Many of the restaurants established all those years ago have been passed down through generations and have become family establishments, maintaining traditions and preserving cultural heritage. For example, Shababs, the oldest restaurant still open in the Balti Triangle. Chef Zaf Hussain is currently running the restaurant, maintaining the traditions that his father established after he settled down in Sparkbrook in the 1960s, coming to Birmingham from Pakistan. His brother took on the restaurant in 1987 and it’s now in Zaf’s care, a passion project.
The Birmingham Balti
The Birmingham Balti is a curry dish invented in the city which has more to do with how it is prepared than its ingredients. It is prepared in a flat-bottomed, thin steel wok-shaped cooking dish, allowing for quick and high-heat cooking. The Balti was developed as a new dish to appeal to the local clientele, which was then predominantly the white British population. Using vegetable oil instead of ghee and serving the curry in the dish it was cooked in, the traditional Balti offered a unique and flavorful experience. The curry is less spicy and sweeter than many authentic Pakistani dishes, and the meat is served off of the bone, again as a move towards appealing to non-Asian diners. Notably, the dish has its own set of rules and guidelines, ensuring its authenticity as a “Birmingham Balti”. Andy Munro, a Birmingham local who is known as the "balti warrior," has been instrumental in promoting and preserving the Birmingham Balti through his books and guides. There were even efforts to have the Birmingham Balti receive a protected status when we were still in the EU.
The end of the Balti Triangle?
While the Balti Triangle retains its status as a cultural landmark, the reality is that its presence and significance in Birmingham has diminished over the years. Not so long ago, the Balti Triangle was included in a list of 40 top cultural UK destinations for people under 40. The area was once home to over 30 authentic balti houses, attracting approximately 20,000 diners per week during its boom in the 90s and 00s. However, economic pressures and changing culinary trends have led to the closure of many of these balti houses. Last year, the iconic Adil's, often credited with inventing the balti, closed its doors after 43 years. Despite still attracting tourists, with people travelling from afar to experience the Balti Triangle, the area's current state comprises only four remaining Balti houses.
Rising costs and challenges
The cost of living crisis in the UK, coupled with rising energy and produce prices, poses significant challenges for balti houses in the Balti Triangle, and all across the UK. The increasing cost of raw materials, declining customer numbers due to pricing issues, and difficulties in staffing have contributed to the continuing decline of these establishments. “The price of raw materials is increasing day by day, customers are declining because of the pricing, because of strict immigration rules we’re having problems with staff, and the younger generation here does not want to step forward and take over family businesses,” said Saidur Rahman Bipul, chief treasurer of the Bangladeshi Caterers Association (BDA), the largest trade group for Britain’s curry houses.
To cope, restaurant owners are forced to find cost-saving solutions, such as reducing opening hours and staff numbers or substituting expensive ingredients for cheaper alternatives. Moreover, the financial constraints faced by customers themselves have resulted in reduced spending on dining out experiences. To put it simply, many people cannot afford to eat out anymore.
Changing tastes and culinary landscapes
Another factor impacting the Balti Triangle's future is the changing tastes of consumers. As the culinary scene diversifies - with the availability of cuisines like Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indonesian, Korean, and dishes from across South America - competition has intensified. People are increasingly open to exploring different cuisines. If Indian food is more closely associated with the boom of the 90s and 2000s, many people may be looking for something new and fresh. In response to people's changing tastes, Indian food in the UK is itself changing from what it was in the 90s and 2000s.
As traditional curry houses struggle to keep afloat, a host of new restaurants offering more fresh, regionally-specific cuisine are flourishing. An example of this is Mowgli, a successful national chain of restaurants launched in 2014, which makes their contrast with traditional curry house food explicit. Their website describes their food as being “a million miles away from the curry stereotype” and “conveys the truth that real Indian food is extremely healthy, often vegan and always packed with fresh flavour.”
Many of the most popular Indian dishes in the UK aren't from India at all, including the Birmingham balti. It seems the new wave of restaurants and diners are looking for something more authentically Indian, and, especially, something much lighter to eat. Saidur Rahman Bipul, chief treasurer of the Bangladeshi Caterers Association (BDA) has noticed changing tastes from customers: “Everything is changing,” he said. “These days people are very conscious about healthy eating, so we accommodate that. Most Indian restaurants now have a grill and tandoor oven to provide a low-fat option to increasingly health-conscious customers, and have broadly reduced their use of ghee and oil.”
Whilst the UK’s understanding of Indian cuisine might not be authentically Indian, it is authentically British-Indian and a historic part of the UK’s food culture. At the end of the day, whilst the Balti triangle might not be what it used to be, there is always room for British-based Indian dishes like the Balti in our diets. Moreover, we should embrace change in our cities as a wider variety of food is made available to us, whether it’s inspired by British cuisine, global cuisines, or a mix of both.
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