Saturday, January 24, 2009

Agra Cafe (or, A Brief History of Balti)

Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are infamous for their lawlessness and poverty, and for hosting the Taliban and Al Qaeda (whether wittingly or not). The FATA’s remoteness and impenetrability have left the region beyond the meaningful reach of the U.S. military and the writ of the Pakistani state; instead, it remains in the hands of the local inhabitants, the disagreeable and dysfunctional Pashtun tribes.

Within the FATA is Landi Kotal, a small and ancient frontier town, located five kilometers east of Afghanistan at the top of the Khyber Pass, the mountainous and ancient trade route that connects Afghanistan to Pakistan. It is hardly a surprise that Landi Kotal is an infamous center of smuggling, drug dealing, and weapons sales. But it is also a center of commerce for the Shinwari and Afridi tribes, which are ethnically Pashtun, and most of NATO’s supplies in Afghanistan come through Landi Kotal and the Khyber Pass. NATO’s supplies have recently come under Taliban attack, just as the British struggled with the Afridi uprising in the frontier town in the late nineteenth century.

According to Khaled Ahmad, a prominent Pakistani journalist, Landi Kotal may be the original home of the deliciously spicy balti stew. Not being a historian of the Pashtun and being a denizen of the ‘wood, I could not discover what the balti stew’s original composition was or when it may have been concocted, especially since the Pashtun are known to eat little other than meat.
We do know, courtesy of Mr. Ahmad, that the balti stew is named for the round, open, double-handled pot in which it is prepared, i.e., the balti. In an unusual fit of linguistic cross-pollination, the Urdu word “balti” is actually a transliterated Portuguese word, introduced into India and meaning a “cylindrical pail.” (Apparently Vasco de Gama brought with him a lot of pails. Yes, I just made a Vasco de Gama joke.) However, in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, the word "balti" bizarrely took on the definition of the double-handed pot, which in southern Pakistan is known as a karahi. (The Portuguese word is actually spelled “balde,” but the revised "balti" is a more convenient spelling according to Ahmad.)

Since Landi Kotal is essentially a small and ancient transit point, the balti dish would have to travel to find a larger audience. It found its way into Punjab, the heavily populated region that sprawls across India and Pakistan, where it rose in popularity. It subsequently found its way into the Western world when South Asians, including many Kashmiris who have claimed it as their own, immigrated into Britain in the late Seventies and early Eighties and served the dish in their new restaurants. A cottage industry of balti specialists, the so-called Balti Triangle, famously took root in Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city and the home of 200,000 “British Asians.” The composition of the dish is now much better known in the English-speaking world:

It is a type of curry. The food is cooked quickly in some ways akin to a stir fry. The ingredients are generally fresh meat and/or vegetables which are first marinated and then cooked with spices. The meal is served piping hot as soon as it has been cooked . . . The dish contains spices such as coriander, ginger, cumin, cloves, cassia bark amongst others. It is best sampled with naan bread or chapattis.

Indeed, the dish has proved so popular in Britain that there has been a movement to give balti a protected status under EU law as a food that originated in a particular area, in this case Birmingham. Yet some Birmingham restaurateurs have been dismayed by these efforts, citing the Pakistani origin of the dish.

Balti’s elusive origins of the dish and its popularity in Britain have provoked deeper questions on the issue of “British Asian” identity, providing succor to British social critics such as Ziauddin Sardar, who recently wrote Balti Britain. Peter Barber, reviewing Sarder’s book in the Financial Times, argues that “The ‘traditional’ Punjabi cuisine known as Balti turns out to be an invention of Birmingham’s Asian communities. It is . . . a product of the UK’s long entanglement with the subcontinent. It shows how Asian immigrants have repackaged tradition and mixed it with modernity to create something new, and how the rest of the UK still insists on reducing them to an undifferentiated mass.” Put more crassly, Sarfraz Manzoor argued in the Observer that “balti (which means 'bucket' in Urdu) is a generic term, in this case one that was basically cooked up by enterprising restaurateurs to fool whites into believing they were eating something significantly different from regular curry.” As for Sardar himself, he writes that “By attaching a different label to what is basically the same food . . . the Indian restaurant reframed its image,” such that “British Asians can be authentic to themselves, reclaim their history, in a number of different and innovative ways.”

We’re a long way from Landi Kotal, and much of the story is incomplete. But to the Fress, these writers’ assertions have some validity. One of the foremost balti restaurants in Birmingham is Muhammed Arif’s Adil, which has been in existence since 1977. Adil has such a staggering number of balti dishes on its menu -- well over 100 -- that the word is either devoid of any meaning and really is a marketing tool, or so expansive that it means any food cooked in, say, that round, open, double-handled pot described by Ahmad. We could then refer to much of Chinese food as “wok.” (Which we probably should do, regardless.) At the very least, there would be a link back to the original Pakistani hinterlands.

The complexities of the British Asian experience and the elusive roots of the balti dish have, of course, found their way to Los Angeles. Pursuant to local custom, they have been condensed into a nondescript-looking restaurant -- in this case Agra Cafe -- which is located in the elbow of a shabby strip center, beneath a tae kwon do studio and adjacent to a seedy liquor store (the sign would indicate that it is simply called “Liquor”). Agra is in Silver Lake, which would seem unlikely relative to, say, Artesia which boasts a large Indian population. But if balti is a food for unsuspecting Caucasians like the Birmingham natives, then Silver Lake with its ironically dressed hipster population ("dot-nose" belt buckles, Members Only jackets, etc, etc.) is the perfect home. Nevertheless, I love this place.

Other than its 10 or so distinguishing balti dishes, Agra offers the same standards seen at virtually every Indian restaurant in the city, though the menu is significantly more comprehensive than the ones that so often litter our doorstep. Moreover, Agra executes these Indian favorites with consistency and notable quality. (The smoky and sublime baigan bhartha, or roasted eggplant with spices, is one of my favorites.) The service is efficient if curt, and well-deserved compliments on the food (particularly the excellent lamb balti) are met with silence. According to Agra’s menu, the stew is made with chopped onions, green peppers, turmeric, cumin, garlic, ginger, and crushed tomatoes. Not having been to Birmingham or the Punjab, I cannot make any determination as to the authenticity of Agra’s balti. But I can confirm the accuracy of the restaurant’s description of the dish as “rich and hearty” with a nice balance of “hot & sweet spicing.” The lamb is unfailingly tender; it may be the rare example when take-out is superior to dining in, for the lamb soaks up the sauces for greater lengths of time.

I attempted to interview the proprietor about balti stews, but he seemed to know as little as I did. (Well, he knew how to make them.) He seemed to believe that balti is a Bengali dish, popularized in England. I attempted to inquire further, but he grew annoyed with me and finally just asked if I was going to order something.

Growing up amidst Cleveland’s gray winters and Iron Curtain demographics, this Jewish boy was raised on schnitzel, spätzle, pierogis, wurst, and other Central and Eastern European staples -- the food of classic Jew-haters. A native-born Angeleno, my infant daughter should grow up to love the classic stews and dishes that come from another region of the world not known for being on the Bar Mitzvah circuit.

Agra Cafe
4325 W. Sunset Blvd.
Silver Lake
(323) 665-7818


TonyC said...

now that is one epic post. thank you for the education. will be sure to sample the "Balti" dishes shortly and.. Happy Chinese New Year!

Judi at Beauty and Bread said...

Discovered your site when I did a search for "Landi Kotal lamb curry" as research for a post I'm preparing for my own website. My ex- and I were in Landi Kotal 40+ years ago and fell in love with the lamb there. Imagine my surprise to find your post.