Baltimania

The latest food craze in England takes its name from Baltistan, a province of northern Pakistan right next door to Hunzaland. The first Balti restaurant opened 20 years ago in Birmingham, where there are now about 100 "Balti-houses," plain joints modeled on Pakistani truck stops. By now Balti-mania has spread to most large English cities. Two years ago a Balti cookbook was No. 1 on the Sunday Times best-seller list.

So what is Balti cuisine? The English think of it as "curry cooked in a wok" and speculate about Chinese influence, but since the "wok" in question is just the traditional round-bottomed Indian pan karhai , this doesn't tell us much. The distinctive element seems to be "Balti sauce": fried onion stewed with tomato and spices. To judge by the Balti cookbooks, any Indian dish can be Balti-ized by adding Balti sauce.

It's doubtful that Balti cuisine really reflects the cookery of Baltistan, a cold, arid region inhabited by Tibetan-speaking Muslims. Probably the first restaurateur who opened a working-class Pakistani eatery in Birmingham just chose Baltistan as a symbol of his country and the name stuck. Unlike the tired old Mughlai restaurants England was used to, these places sold authentic Indian folk food, and this was the reason for the excitement.

One of the Balti-houses, by the way, is named Balti Towers.

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