Birmingham is justifiably well-known for its ‘Balti Houses’, which have been serving up delicious and economical food from the Indian sub-continent since the 1970’s. When I first became a regular visitor here in the late ’70’s, there were a handful of top-quality restaurants in the Sparkbrook/Sparkhill area who offered a limited but excellent range of Balti dishes based on Meat (Lamb), Chicken or Mixed Vegetable served with naan or tandoori roti. This area of the city had been colonised by families escaping from the India/Pakistan conflict of 1970 and many were Muslims originating from the Mirpur region of the Punjab. Some of the refugees went to Bradford, others here to Birmingham.
By the time I actually moved to Birmingham in the late 1980’s, visiting these places had become a regular and frequent social activity. It was not unusual for us to go twice in a weekend and we rapidly established a network of favourite haunts, becoming quite friendly with the staff and enthusing to friends from elsewhere about the quality of the food.
Over the coming years, things began to change on several fronts. Firstly, restaurants all over the city began to incorporate Balti dishes into their Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Biryani and Prawn Dhansak menus, blending this ‘new’ Punjabi/Kashmiri cooking in with the well-established Bengali dishes they had been serving for years. On top of this, the sheer number of Balti Houses in what became known as ‘The Balti Triangle’ around the Sparkbrook area proliferated to a massive degree. Thirdly, over the years, pressure on finances, the arrival of children and the deleterious effect of eating too many Baltis on middle-aged English waistlines took their toll, so we went less often.
Our final moment of glory probably came about 1992 when we became embroiled in a BBC film shoot for a now-defunct programme called ‘The Food and Drink Show’. A friend of the partner was a director on this show and he got a bunch of us together at a restaurant in Church Road. He had enlisted comedian Lenny Henry, a West Midlander and Balti fan, to guide cordon bleu chef John Burton Race through the whole Balti phenomenon, culminating in a night in a restaurant where JBR cooked baltis for a group of us and we all waxed enthusiastic about what a fabulous job he was doing. The 10 minute segment was broadcast on the show a few weeks later and we revelled in the glory; I even got stopped on the High Street here by a total stranger who recognised me from the show and was quizzed about the whole evening. It’s also perhaps worth noting that Race later acted as a consultant on Henry’s series ‘Chef’, based on JBR’s own restaurant(L’Ortolan) in Berkshire.
I suppose that restaurants in general and ‘Indian’ food in particular have always been characterised by fads and vogues and suchlike. In time, it became possible to get a Balti from your local (often Bengali) restaurant or takeaway which was every bit as good as the ones you got in Sparkbrook. So, with kids and mortgages and inertia, we got lazy and even though Sparkbrook was just down the road, the frequency of our visits dropped off. We used our local outlets and neglected our old favourites. Other cuisines like Thai and Moroccan arrived on the scene and those, too, took us away to other venues.
Consequently, many Balti restaurants went over to ‘Halal Fast Food’ – pizzas, kebabs and the like. Some closed down completely. The City marketed the Balti Triangle to visitors, but many stayed in the city centre rather than coming out to Sparkbrook. It all seemed vibrant enough as restaurants began to upgrade their decor from the traditional glass-topped tables with menus underneath to more conventional restaurant fittings and put up lurid neon signs to attract passing moths like us. However, the reality was that times were getting harder; it wasn’t just the ageing fans like us who just couldn’t drag ourselves away from ‘Friends‘ and Jonathan Woss on a Friday night – pub closing hours were also going through a revolution, too. This meant that the customary 11 o’clock closing time rush had also diminished.
Ladypool Road at the heart of the ‘Balti Triangle’
Like everyone else who frequented Sparkbrook, we had our favourites. People would earnestly discuss which restaurant served the best tarka dhal or Balti Chicken or Lassi. Meals were analysed and compared like bottles of vintage wine. We had a particular favourite, which I’m not going to name for reasons that should become obvious. We used a variety of restaurants like The Royal Naim (now gone) and the Grand Tandoori (also gone) on Stratford Road, Saleem’s on Ladypool Road (still there, still excellent) and even K2 in Moseley Village (also still there and still excellent) but we had our default venue and we would visit this place more often than any of the others. The reason for that was simply that although the starters were often iffy, the Baltis were consistently brilliant; something that went on throughout the 1990’s and into the new millennium.
We have been known to get off the ferry at Holyhead after 10 days in the west of Ireland and drive hell-for-leather down the motorways to get to Sparkbrook before closing time. We would joke that we needed to get home for some ‘real food’. We would take remnants home in foil containers and re-heat them for brunch the following day. We sang the praises of this place to anyone who would listen. Giant parties of visitors from London and New York and Manchester were dragged off to this place and we would take over at least half of the restaurant. It wasn’t just us either; I can remember seeing a coach party from Worcester arrive and take over the whole of the top floor.
South Birmingham’s Balti Triangle
And then, somehow, it all just started to fall away. Staff changed, chefs came and went and we went, but far less often. The food didn’t suddenly become vile – it was more subtle than that somehow. The food just became average and our motivation to go diminished in line with the declining quality. We knew that the Baltis served up by the prizewinning ‘Sylhet’ Bangladeshi restaurant here in Kings Heath were just infinitely superior to what we were eating at our old watering-hole.
What remained were the relationships we had built up over 30 years of eating there. We knew the family who ran the place – not intimately but well enough that I could stand outside and have a cigarette with the Manager, not only sparring gently with him about his affection for Liverpool and mine for Manchester United but also quite seriously discussing the negative impact of the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings on attitudes and on business. The ‘Glory Days’ were over it seemed and therefore each of the occasional visits we did make somehow seemed to become increasingly important to them.
I guess we have only visited this restaurant twice a year for the last five years – compared to twice a weekend back in the late 80’s. To be honest, I cannot remember the last time I had a truly outstanding meal there – something that used to happen pretty much on every visit. So, we went last night – there is a nostalgia about place that keeps us going back, particularly when we get together with certain groups of friends with whom we used to eat there on a regular basis. Now, the scenario has become reversed – the starters we had were excellent but the Baltis were dismal. My Chicken Tikka Jal Frezi was so salty I had to send it back.
They are marvellous people and their concern at serving us sub-standard food was genuine enough. I was quickly supplied with a replacement dish, which was at least adequate, but of course the damage had been done. As we left, one young lad who has risen through the family ranks from teenage washer-up to head waiter asked me about my Dad and about the Princess, neither of whom have visited for many years. Is it genuine interest or just good PR? Who can say? No doubt we will keep returning from time to time, but somehow you just know that it’s never going to be the same again…