In the heart of Birmingham’s Balti Triangle, Shababs is a much-loved family business that has been in existence for nearly 30 years. The district is said to be the birthplace of the balti, and yet Shababs is one of only a handful of original balti restaurants left in Birmingham. Elsewhere, visa restrictions have meant that restaurants struggle to find Pakistani staff with experience of traditional cooking techniques, and in some family-run establishments, the children are seeking careers outside of catering and are reluctant to take over the business. At Shababs, however, several generations of the Hussain family work hard to ensure that balti cuisine is kept very much alive.
What exactly is a balti anyway?
The name ‘balti’ is believed to come from the Urdu, Hindi and Bengali word for ‘bucket’, because balti curries are cooked, served and eaten in the same metal dish. It seems that demand in the UK in the 1970s and 80s for quicker curries made from fresh vegetables and off-the-bone meat led Birmingham chefs to adapt traditional slow-cooked, one-pot Pakistani dishes for their new audience. The use of just one dish means that diners can be sure of a freshly prepared and piping hot meal. What’s more, vegetable oil is used rather than clarified butter, and the cooking technique uses a high flame that burns up the excess oil, making baltis healthier than other curries.
Shababs’ Birmingham balti
Shababs offers an impressive range of different dishes, including a long list of fish and prawn baltis and an equally diverse vegetarian selection. The chicken and meat are marinated in spices for maximum tenderness and taste, and the minced keema dishes are equally delicious. Signature dishes include the sumptuous balti chicken tikka masala keema jalfrezi, and the balti chicken and king prawn is also particularly recommended. Don’t forget to order nan, freshly baked in their own tandoori oven and available in a huge range of sizes and flavours, as the traditional way of eating a balti is to scoop it up with torn off pieces of bread, rather than using cutlery.
The future of the Birmingham balti
In October 2016 Zafar Hussain of Shababs appeared on the BBC, cooking chicken balti for the Hairy Bikers in a spectacularly speedy 6 minutes, 48 seconds, including the naan bread. His performance and the resulting curry clearly won the support of the Bikers and also drew in new customers who vowed to become regulars. Zafar and several other original Balti Triangle restaurateurs were campaigning to get EU protected status for the Birmingham balti, but the future of the bid now looks uncertain. For the time being, the best way to support Birmingham’s healthy, home-grown curry is to head to the Balti Triangle and book a place at Shababs.