So what would you rather hear first: how to make this tantalizing recipe for Vegetable Balti, or the story of the day I was stood up by Britain's curry king?
Okay, well, I know it's the Balti you want, but I'd rather tell you the other one. 🙂 Early in my career, while still working in India, I won a scholarship to work at The Daily Telegraph in London. To a green-behind-the-ears reporter, it was an exciting time. I had a huge house to myself on the Eastside, right on the river Thames. Every morning I'd walk down a mile or so to the tall, cone-roofed glass building in Canary Wharf where the offices of The Telegraph were, and tackle assignments that ranged from a fire at Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber's stables to writing about a runaway teen who was always being found by police in foreign countries to zipping around the Thames at a press conference on a boat trying to interview Maurice Saatchi.
In the middle of all this, my editor at the newspaper I worked for back home in India dropped what seemed a fun assignment in my lap: she wanted me to write the story of Gulam Noon, the man almost synonymous with Indian cuisine in Britain.
Noon, called Britain's curry king, is known for his packaged curries sold in supermarkets all over the country, and for his Bombay Brasserie restaurant in upscale Kensington. He is originally from Bombay, my home city, and I was rather looking forward to meeting him.
I managed to track down his phone number with some help from another reporter at the Telegraph. He promised an interview, in person, at the Bombay Brasserie the next day.
It took me the better part of an hour, and two tube transfers, to make my way from the Dockyards to central London, but I was there on the dot. Someone showed me into the restaurant which had closed after lunch. All around me people -- most of them in white -- buzzed, cooking, cleaning, getting ready for dinner. A woman someone introduced to me as Noon's daughter told me she expected her father soon.
Soon turned to never. I waited, and waited, and waited. Noon, they told me, had been called away to another appointment and was not going to make it after all. I was leaving to return to India later the same week, so my story was never to be.
Just like that date with the curry king, the rest of my experience with Indian cuisine in Britain was not a pleasant one. Indian food in Britain, for those of you who've never had it, is quite a different animal from Indian food anywhere else in the world, and can, to Indian tastebuds at least, appear bland. Immigrants from the subcontinent have, over the centuries, adapted ingredients from their motherland to local tastes. In the process, they created recipes and whole cuisines that sound as if they spawn from the Indian subcontinent, but are uniquely British, like tikka masala, curry powder, and Balti.
Balti cuisine is said to have originated in a Pakistani restaurant in Birmingham, that hotbed of south Asian culture in Britain, sometime in the 1970s. It draws sneers from the high priests of Indian cuisine in Britain, but its popularity endures, a testament, perhaps, to the fact that those who love to eat care less for a pedigree and more for flavor. And Balti certainly has that, more so than most British Indian dishes.
Part of the reason why Balti is reviled is the strange technique used to cook it-- strange to Indian and Pakistani cuisine, that is -- stir-fry. It's hard, Indian chefs would argue, to stir-fry Indian meat dishes, because cooking over high heat is horrible for the spices which will burn, and there is really no time for the chunks of meat to cook.
While that may be true, the technique does work rather well with vegetables. Especially those that do beautifully over high heat. Balti, which translates to bucket in Hindi, is so called because it's always cooked -- and served -- in an Indian wok, called a karahi or kadhai, which kinda resembles a bucket. If you don't have one, use a Chinese wok, which will do the job just beautifully, or a large saucepan.
The Vegetable Balti recipe I have for you today uses mushrooms, green peppers and potatoes (you do have to cook the potatoes first because the stir-frying is not enough to cook the potatoes through). Over all of this goodness goes a delectable Balti sauce that smells so amazing, your nostrils and tastebuds will be doing a happy dance.
You will find recipes for dry Balti spice mixes, but I really recommend going with a sauce which works better with the stir-frying technique. The liquid in the sauce gives the spices enough time to cook before they can burn.
Make a batch today.
Looking for more vegetable curries?
- Easy Vegetable Curry with Chickpeas
- Vegetable Korma
- Goan Vegetable Xacuti
- Matar Mushroom, Mushrooms and Peas in a Creamy Sauce, Oil-Free
- Vegan Thai Green Curry
- Creamy Peas Potato Curry
- 15 button mushrooms (or crimini, halved or quartered)
- 1 medium red onion (diced)
- 2 green peppers (diced)
- 2 potatoes
- 3 green onions (scallions/spring onions, chopped)
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
For the balti sauce
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- ¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- 4 green cardamom pods
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 dry red chili peppers
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- 3 teaspoon curry powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon ginger powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 medium tomato, (diced)
- 2 tablespoon vinegar
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- Place potatoes in a microwave safe bowl with 1 inch of water and zap for 10 minutes until the potatoes are cooked through. Peel and cut in a dice.
- Make the Balti Sauce:
- Heat a skillet. Dry-roast the bay leaves, coriander, cumin, fennel, mustard, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves and chilies until they are slightly darker and fragrant, about three to four minutes,
- Turn off the heat, remove the ingredients to a blender, and to the hot skillet add the turmeric, curry powder, onion powder, garlic powder and ginger powder. Stir a bit to roast in the hot skillet without turning on the heat. Add to the blender.
- Add the vinegar, tomato and oil to the blender. Blend into a very smooth paste.
- Make the Vegetable Balti:
- Heat the oil in a wok. Add the onions, stir-fry over high heat for a couple of minutes, then add the green peppers and mushrooms.
- Cook over high heat, stirring frequently, for about eight to 10 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked but still have some bite. Add the potatoes.
- Add a third of the Balti sauce. Stir well, and continue to cook over medium heat for about five to seven minutes. Add salt to taste.
- Garnish with the chopped spring onions. Serve hot.
- Hot tip: this tastes even better the next day, when the flavors have had a chance to sit together and meld.
This looks great and I'm about to try it but I'm a bit confused. You say to add a third of the balti sauce but I can't see where you say to add the rest of it?
Hi there, you just need a third for this dish. You can freeze the rest for later!
Made this for dinner this evening, sadly missing the odd spice but was still incredibly delish! Also added a little bit of Mango chutney to bring in a bit of sweetness but even the recipe as it is, is fantastic! -laura
Laura, so happy you liked it!
Hi there, I'd like a tip if possible. I've made this twice now, following the recipe exact. But I'm wanting to make more of a sauce to go with everything as the paste isn't very saucy, so I added a can of plum tomatoes and some water and boiled it off. Do you have any tips as to how to make this more saucy please?
Hi there, just add some water, if you want more of a sauce. Tomatoes would change the taste, so I wouldn't advise it.
Sounds really tasty this recipe. thanks for posting.
I am from the Midwest, and I actually discovered Indian food while living in Scotland in the mid-70s. We always ordered Indian takeaway, but once for a treat decided to eat in at the restaurant, where we discovered that the spicing used for the mostly-Indian/Pakistani customers was very different from that used for takeaway! I had never had anything that spicy hot in my life, and I ordered the same dish I got all the time as takeaway. Over the years I have built up my taste for spicy, but I'm sure I would still have a rude awakening in India.
I love that so much Indian food is vegetarian, but since I went vegan a couple of years ago, I've had fewer choices. So I was delighted to find this site.
By the way, if you have never tried it, Equinox Restaurant in DC has an amazing vegan brunch on Sundays. I can highly recommend it!
Hi Leslie, thanks for the tip on Equinox-- have never been but would love to go.
Thanks for sharing your story about your introduction to Indian food. Some Indian food can be a rude awakening for my tastebuds too, which are used to considerably less heat than most Indians'. But yes, nothing can beat Indian cuisine for the vast vegetarian tradition. It certainly makes it easy to be a vegan and eat delicious food. 🙂
That looks too good. Very inviting. Loved reading your story too.
Thanks, Minnie. 🙂
Your description of the Indian food in Britain reminds me of a story I heard about a Chicago Bluesman named Sonny Boy Williamson who went to England in the 60's to play for the people there and earn some cash but not necessarily in that order. He had the Yarbirds featuring Eric Clapton on guitar as his backing band. When he got back home he said of the English musicians "They want to play the blues so bad, and they play the blues so bad."
😀 That gave me a good laugh. Thanks for sharing that story!
Sarojini (Yogi Vegans)
Thanks for posting this, and sharing your story too. Funnily enough, I have never tried balti, despite the fact that I work at a school within Birmingham's famous "Balti Triangle". My husband remembers the first balti houses from the late 70s such as Butt's on Ladypool Road (now closed) and Al Faisal's on Stoney Lane (still there). They were indeed originally Pakistani, and to him and his friends as young vegans on a budget, they provided a cheap and tasty way to eat out. In fact for my husband, talking to the proprietors of the local restaurants and groceries sparked off a lifelong passion for Indian cookery; there are a number of Gujarati and Punjabi pure veg places in Birmingham which cater for British Asians wanting food like "back home" and which also do have a number of vegan items on their menus, and even some South Indian places now, such as Chennai Dosa on the Hagley Road. I think you would find British Indian cuisine much changed these days!
Hi Sarojini, yes, I believe there have been many changes. And how lovely to hear about your and your husband's experiences with balti and Indian cuisine in Birmingham. I would love to visit Birmingham someday, if only to eat at one of those Balti restaurants. 🙂
Lovely site .thanks ....just a quick note from the uk .the standard of curry house has improved since you lived here .
We even have proper dosa houses and indian street food stalls in our big cities .
Lovely site .i have signed up for the newsletter .
Paul from Reading Berks .
Hi Paul, thanks for your kind words! And yes, I have heard about the vast improvements in British Indian restaurants. We were there last year, but didn't have a chance to eat at an Indian restaurant. I will definitely plan to the next time which should be soon because I am a confirmed Anglophile. 🙂
Thanks for sharing the great story and yes, I lived in London and found the same difference!!! Thank you, for validating and for the laughs this Sunday morning. Most of all THANK YOU, for making recipes less intimidating and for making me feel "I can cook this". You have no idea how much it helps as I only started cooking a yr ago when I turned vegan & Gluten free, thanks to folks like you, Vegan Richa, Chocolate covered Katie. Love the way you gave the history behind Balti, as I had no idea. I will be making these this week as I am off to see the Cherry Blossoms today.
THANK YOU, for your stories & your wonderful, simple yet flavorful recipes that help people like me (intimidated & scared) to cook & surprise themselves & eat healthy.
Hi JN, thanks for your kind words, and so happy the blog has been a useful resource. I hope you will try the Balti. And how wonderful you had a chance to see the cherry blossoms this year-- I was hoping to go Sunday but the time got away. Well, maybe next year...
Thank you for sharing your recipes and the stories behind them. They look very good and healthy too. Where can I get all the spices for the recipes? Thanks again. Maryann
Hi Maryann, your local Indian grocery store is the best source, but if you don't have one where you live, you can get all of these spices on Amazon.