· culture ·

I went out with a group of people from work to a balti restaurant yesterday, and I realised with a shock that it's the first time I've been to a real balti since I've been living here. Of course, I've had many Indian meals at restaurants which have a few balti dishes on the menu, but I haven't been to the real thing.

For those of you who aren't from the UK (or who don't know much about Indian food), the balti is an interesting phenomenon. The origins of the sub-cuisine are a bit obscure, but most people seem to agree that the balti was invented in Birmingham in the 1970s. Some claim that the word 'balti' comes from the Urdu word for 'bucket', and refers to the shape of the iron wok-like pan that the dish is cooked and served in. Others think that's just an urban legend, and that balti refers to the style of cooking. Whatever the truth of the matter, the dish is one of those odd culinary inventions that sometimes arise when cultures meet.

The balti is a medium hot curry, and usually features coriander and tomato quite prominently. It can be just vegetables, or meat and vegetables (these are often referred to as just 'meat' in the menu, without being any more specific). The genuine balti experience involves scooping up the curry with big chunks of naan bread, rather than using cutlery, but you can have it with rice if you want. One thing to remember is that the balti dish is incredibly hot when it comes to the table, and there are none of those ridiculous 'warning - contents may be very hot' labels on them. I knew this and still managed to burn my knuckles while getting a bit carried away with naan scooping. Still, a few burns are the hallmark of a good balti experience, and are part of the fun.

Good balti restaurants are generally very cheap with few frills, and are therefore phenomenally popular with students. The one we went to didn't have a drinks licence, so you can even buy cheap alcohol at an off licence and bring it in. There's even a balti triangle, in which roughly every second establishment is a balti restaurant. I'm also told that it's a bit like the Bermuda Triangle in that you can disappear there for days.

When I was searching for some links to add to this entry, I came across references to the country of Balitstan in the Himalayas, in which the language of Balti is spoken. I'd never heard of this before, but it seems to have nothing to do with the curry.