Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Alphaspaghettical Guide to the West Midlands

I is for Indian and Bengali Restaurants and Sweet Shops

Birmingham is famous for being the place where balti restaurants first started in England, originating in the Kashmiri and Pakistani community in the Sparkbrook area of the city.

Read the Alphaspaghettical entry for Balti

Many years before the balti craze however, there were still plenty of Indian restaurants dotted all around the city, although these were largely run by people from Bangladesh (Bengalis). Bengali restaurants are what we generally might think of as the epitome of our traditional High Street Indian restaurant; as typically British nowadays as double decker buses and red post boxes.

The dishes served in Bengali restaurants are generally from all over India but have benefited from the touch of class given to them by Bengali chefs. They tend to include all the ones we know and love from the days before balti and tikka massala, right up until the present day: korma, madras, bhoona, dopiaza, rogan josh, biryani, dhansak and not forgetting the notoriously hot vindaloo.

Acclaimed Indian chef Madhur Jaffray writes in one of her books about the high regard in which Bengali food is held, quoting a dinner guest who told her “There are only four great cuisines in the world – French, Chinese, Italian and Bengali!”

Even today, Bengali restaurants are just as common in Birmingham as they have always been and most have adapted to the changing trends in South East Asian cooking. The names of the dishes becoming increasingly longer as chefs become more and more experimental, creating dishes such as the balti chicken tikka massala with sag (spinach) and aloo (potato). Where will it end?

The tandoori style of Indian cuisine is an ancient method of cooking meat, especially chicken, which became popular in India’s capital city of Delhi in the late 1940s. Tandoori involves fast roasting red, spicy meat in hot, clay ovens. The style became hugely popular in British cities when in the 1970s, once again, it was Bengali chefs who introduced it onto restaurant menus.

What the traditional Indian restaurants of the Bengali community have in common with the more recent development of the Kasmiri dominated balti house is that both traditions are dominated by Muslim chefs and owners. This may seem strange to people outside of the Asian community, especially when we consider that Birmingham has equally sizeable communities of Hindus and Sikhs. The answer lies in the religious traditions of both Hinduism and Sikhism, where cooking and eating outside of the home or the temple was a taboo for centuries. Both religious traditions also encourage vegetarianism, which would not have had the same popularity amongst the curry loving British public.

On streets like the Soho Road in Handsworth however, where there is a very high Sikh community, a different Asian custom has flourished instead through the proliferation of Indian sweet shops. Indian sweets are an integral element of Asian culture right across all religious communities. Unlike the Western custom of eating sweet things as desserts after a main meal, Asian people finish their meals with fresh fruit, reserving sweets for special occasions, festivals and other celebrations. Take a walk along Soho Road and observe the trays of brightly coloured sweetmeats piled high on glass counters and shelves.

Popular Indian sweet dishes include:

Gulab Jamun – sugary milk balls flavoured with rose water and syrup

Burfi – fudge like sweetmeats of various flavours

Jalebi – Bright orange spiral shaped sweets made from fired flour and syrup

Halwa – a name given to several different types of pudding e.g. carrot, semolina, almond, etc.

Kulfi – Ice cream made from boiled milk with rice flour and cream

Puran Puri – Semolina and almond pastries

Ras Malai – Ground and spiced almonds and cashews in prepared milk

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