Ask Dr. Food

"I lived in England recently and loved going to balti houses. Why can't I find balti here in the U.S.?"

Jennifer Kooiman of Seattle asks: I lived in England recently and loved going to balti houses. Why can't I find balti here in the U.S.? Is it some sort of made-up English curry that Indian people don't even eat? Dr. Food responds: Kooiman's suspicion is correct. In Urdu and Hindi "balti" means "bucket," but balti cuisine originated in Birmingham, England, home to a large Pakistani diaspora since the 1950s. Among working-class Punjabis and Kashmiris, balti came to be a synonym for karhai, a cast-iron cooking pot that looks and works like a wok. Balti dishes are stir-fried in the balti or karhai, then served right out of it. Somewhere along the way, someone came up with the romantic notion that balti cooking originated in Baltistan, a wild, arid region in Pakistan's Karakoram mountains. Not so. Real Baltis, of Mongol and Caucasian stock, live on a simple diet rich in wheat and vegetables and do not cook in baltis or karhais. Chicken jalfrazi and balti gosht, big balti house favorites, are not in the Balti vocabulary. In the late 1990s, there were a couple of balti restaurants in New York City's Jackson Heights neighborhood, but following 9/11, New York's Pakistani immigrant community was hard hit by the Justice Department's crackdown on visa offenses. Literally thousands of Pakistani economic immigrants, many of whom ran or worked in Jackson Heights' many excellent restaurants, were in violation of their visas and fled to Canada or went back home. Except for Pak Tea House, which serves Pakistani doodh-patti tea latte and a mean balti gosht, I don't know of a place that survived. Kooiman may have to go back to England to taste balti again.

 
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