Balti Brexit: No EU protection for unique UK cuisine

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: Aug 19, 2016 22:27 IST
A lamb version of balti gosht. (Wikipedia)

It’s a version of food from the Indian subcontinent developed by immigrants in the 1970s, but Brussels has poured cold water over the spicy hot and tingling “Birmingham Balti” cuisine for which protected status was sought under European Union regulations. 

Lovers of the unique cuisine developed in Birmingham are furious and have accused Brussels of anti-Britain bias. The campaign that lasted six years was aimed at securing the TSG (traditional speciality guaranteed) status for Birmingham Balti under EU’s rules. 

The application for TSG status, moved by the Birmingham Balti Association (BBA) and supported by the British government, defined the cuisine as “a fast cooked curry dish which can be made using chicken, fish, meat or vegetables”.

“The Birmingham Balti is cooked and served in a thin steel wok-shaped bowl called the balti, from which the dish gets its name,” the application said.

However, the EU said in a recent ruling: “Some different varieties of balti are allowed; those varieties are not definitively identified. The colour of the dish changes (either lighter brown or more reddish) depending on which ingredients are added.”

It added, “The additional ingredients and spices may but not have to be added. It is therefore not possible to determine what the final recipe to be followed is.”

TSG status would have given the dish legal protection against imitation across the EU. TSG status is not geographically bound, so if anyone meets the specification and is audited to prove it, then they can use the name Birmingham Balti.

BBA’s Andy Munro, who led the consortium of balti restaurants behind the application, said: "This is a shameful way to treat such a well-loved British food institution. It shows crass insensitivity to the ethnic diversity of modern British cooking.

“In the final analysis, they don't 'get' that balti is a method of cooking rather than a recipe albeit that every restaurant uses the same base ingredients, then overlaying this with spices of their own choice.”

Munro added, “It's nonsense when you consider the Neapolitan Pizza has the mark when it's just pizza dough, tomatoes, cheese and basil. It's all a bit disappointing especially when the UK government were happy with our application."

According to the BBA, it was seeking TSG status to “preserve this unique food, as a fusion between the traditions of South Asian and British cuisine”.

An area of Birmingham is called the “Balti Triangle”, where many popular Balti restaurants are located.  The history of Birmingham Balti goes back to the 1970s, when people from Mirpur in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, displaced by the Mangla Dam project, migrated to the UK and brought with them their traditional method of slow cooking meat on the bone (chicken, lamb and beef) or vegetables, usually in an earthenware pot called a ‘haandi’ or a cast iron receptacle called a ‘karahi’ over low heat.  

As the cuisine became popular in Birmingham, it was named balti because Brummies found it easier to pronounce than ‘karahi’. The earthernware pot gave way to thin pressed steel bowls with two handles, similar to a wok, about 22 cm in diameter, which was called a balti.

In its application, BBA set out five characteristics of Birmingham Balti, which, it claimed, combined to “differentiate it from other curries whether cooked for both the indigenous UK population or Indian subcontinent palates”. These characteristics are:  For meat baltis, the meat is cooked off the bone rather than on the bone as in other curries in the traditional “one pot” cooking of the Indian subcontinent; the meal is fast cooked in a balti at high temperatures over a high flame very quickly; vegetable oil is used instead of ghee; dried spices are used, with the exception of fresh ginger and garlic puree and prepared generic commercial curry pastes and powders are not used; the meal is served in the thin pressed steel wok in which it is cooked and traditionally eaten with fingers, using naan bread.

Under EU rules, TSG status is given to “products which are traditional or have customary names and have a set of features which distinguish them from other similar products. These features must not be due to the geographical area the product is produced in nor entirely based on technical advances in the method of production.” 

Indian dishes have been modified to cater to the British palate since Sake Dean Mohamed from Patna opened the first Indian restaurant in London – Hindustanee Coffee House – in 1810. The popular chicken tikka masala is one such dish that is considered a British invention.

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