World Cup 2019: Balti cooking, cricket and yearning for Pak
Cooking Balti at Birmingham’s Stoney Lane is not even half the fun as dishing out the Bombay Koyla Karahi on the streets of Karachi’s Hussainabad. The meat is not cut and weighed in front of customers, there is hardly any clanking of pots and pans, the noise of onions and tomatoes being chopped on wooden cutting boards is missing and there’s barely any smoke emanating from the rows of burning embers.
Britain’s strict cooking norms have reduced the spectacle of balti—a style of cooking in Pakistan and India using high heat on a steel kadhai, not unlike a stir fry—to a mere in-house experience. Mohammed Aftab isn’t happy that traditions like sheekhs and ‘katakat’—a stir fried or ‘bhuna’ dish that gets its name from the rhythmic clanking of iron spatulas mincing meat on flat pans—that need an open fire had to be shelved or modified in keeping with the law.
Adil’s, a restaurant that opened in 1977 and is considered the pioneer of balti cooking in Britain, has tried to keep the experience as authentic as possible, which is why here, the ‘balti’ is served in the same wok used to cook it.
Zulfi, the head chef at Adil’s for 15 years now, gets to work once the slip makes it to the pass. With deft hands, he chops the tomatoes, pours the vegetable oil (instead of desi ghee, another British compromise) and lets the chicken simmer in it before cranking up the gas. Everything is measured out in time: when to add the garam masala, the turmeric, the kashmiri laal mirch, the whole spices, chillies and the final garnish. It’s done in 10 minutes. Zulfi gets back to checking on his inventory. It’s a slow day at Adil’s; four customers sipping on wine and praising the curry even though its making them sweat on a chilly evening.
“It was not always like this,” says Aftab, the manager. “Earlier we used to be open for lunch and dinners. Now it’s only dinners. We still do brisk business on weekends but weekdays can be pretty slow. When I think of those days, it feels pretty unbelievable that once we had a footfall of 55,000 in a month.”
Aftab is talking of a time when Indian food was the only option apart from the local pubs and fish and chip shops. Those were the heydays of balti cooking, when a slew of Indian and Pakistani restaurants used to make up the popular ‘Balti Triangle’ of Birmingham, attracting locals, touring cricketers and even former prime minister David Cameron.
“Big names often came here…. Imran Khan, Inzamam, Shoaib Mohammad. Tab to mehfil hota tha yahaan (It used to be a soiree here). Dinners used to continue till late at night,” remembers Aftab. “Siyasat (politics) and cricket, dinner conversations used to be incomplete without them.”
Cricket is integral to life around these parts of Birmingham. Not very far from Stoney Lane grew up Moeen Ali, still remembered as that wiry chap who could bat very well and went on to become the ‘beard that’s feared’. Ali studied at Nelson Mandela Primary School, situated adjacent to a huge field lining Stoney Lane that hosts community cricket matches every Sunday. Some teams in fact, are sponsored by the balti restaurants as a way of supporting the game and the youth of Birmingham. Like Al Faisals, established in 1982, a stone’s throw from Adil’s and their biggest competitor. This restaurant too is steeped in cricket. Among the most liked photos on their social media handle is one that has Mohammad Ajaib, the restaurant’s founder, with Javed Miandad during Pakistan’s 1986 tour. Qasim, the sprightly 22-year-old manager, tells how they had sponsored Pakistan’s team bus during the 2017 Champions Trophy.
Getting players to visit the restaurant has become difficult over the years. Locals at Stoney Lane feel increased security and fear of being approached by bookies have made players apprehensive. Still there are the odd calls requesting balti shops to deliver baltis, biryani, korma and the massive ‘table naans’ to team hotels. “The players’ connect isn’t as real time as it used to be,” says Mohammad, one of the oldest hands in Adil. Still, the community around Stoney Lane breathes cricket. Often it’s the only distraction from the tough immigrant life. “Accha lagta hai cricket dekh kar,” says Mohammad. He had come to Birmingham when he was eight, worked for 30 years before deciding to head home to Mirpur, in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in 2018. It was an emotional decision, one he would regret quickly. “Life back home is difficult. Every day we don’t have electricity for hours. Generators cost a lot. At least here you have insurance, health care,” he says. Better sense prevailed and he returned six months back.
“Wapas kab jaoge?”
“Pata nahi. It’s better here.”
Living far from home, cricket becomes an emotional connect to the land left behind. This year has been good. Pakistan toured England just before the World Cup. It all got heady the day Pakistan beat New Zealand in a World Cup thriller, right here in Birmingham. It sparked off celebrations that went on all night.
“Those are the best days to be in the food business,” says the young manager, Qasim. Surviving in the Balti Triangle for a balti joint isn’t easy anymore, with Chinese, Lebanese, Turkish and Ethiopian food making inroads. So when Pakistan plays here, and especially when they win, the happy countrymen, generous orders, and lavish tips go a long way. The loss to India hurt. But there is still hope against hope.
“Aren’t Pakistan coming back to Birmingham for the semi-finals?” asks Mohammad. Better to leave the answer unsaid.