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Baltistan's mystery food

Balti cuisine, marked by quick-cooking and subtly-spiced curries, has an intriguing lineage. Figure it out at the ongoing food festival at Le Meridien.


A WOK IS not a karahi. A karahi is not a wok. And a balti is neither a karahi nor a wok, though all three are basically cast iron, round-bottomed cooking vessels. That was clear to the eye at the ongoing Baltistan Ka Daawat festival at Le Meridien (July 11 to 27).

If that sounds like Peshawari, Chinese, or double Dutch to you, don't worry. Because Balti cuisine, a UK-centric rage about five years ago, before it was eclipsed by pan-Indian eateries, touched Bangalore only briefly through the Ebony Restaurant. And most British Indians were wary of this taste-alike cuisine, a pretender to the South Asian kitchen.

A backgrounder attributes Balti cuisine to — hold your breath — China and Tibet, nomadic descendents of the tribals, the Moghul court cuisine, aromatic Kashmiri spices, winter foods from mountain highlands, and Punjabi khana. The ancient silk route brought the Balti pan from China to Baltistan, a long forgotten province near the Karakoram Pass. By the time it reached Punjab, perhaps it was transformed into the karahi. However, a note from Chef Sandeep Ghosh, the brain behind the spread, signals that the recent cuisine is more likely to have originated among Pakistanis in the English Midlands than in Baltistan, which appears in few atlases.

But, to revert to cookery, Baltistan-style. These quick-cooking, subtly-spiced curries, seared or stir-fried from pre-assembled ingredients, are cooked over a high flame on a charcoal-fired chulah. What spices go into its basic mix? Coriander, jeera, cinnamon, methi, mustard, cloves, kalaunji, dry methi and curry leaves, cardamom, and lovage. Roasted and ground, these are combined with vinegar and vegetable oil, tossed with finely chopped onion, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, fresh coriander and so on to make a fairly standard gravy. And yes, the dishes were served in aesthetic copper-plated mini Balti pans — and buckets!

This predominantly lamb and chicken-based fare also offers gobi mushroom, channa masala, bhindi bhaji, and tarka dal, each prefaced by the word Balti, in addition to rogni nan, garlic nan, and other standard rotis.

How did the tongue respond? The Balti prawn with peas masala (Rs. 800) proved a winner, its hint of crunchy fresh ingredients blending smoothly with the succulent jumbo prawns in a cream-based gravy. Teamed with a dry fruit-studded Peshawari nan (Rs. 60), we lingered over its unfolding secrets with every mouthful.

The Balti tandoori chicken gravy (Rs. 275) had tender chicken enrobed in a smooth tomato gravy that was predictably spiced, yet not unappetising. Of the vegetarian fare, the Balti subz bhuna masala (Rs. 225) offered crisp carrots, peas, mushrooms, and other seasonal vegetables in a subtle curry that foregrounded their freshness.


But the Balti gosht tikka bhuna (Rs. 275), which might have proved a diet staple if the cuisine originated among tribesmen in landlocked Peshawar rather than Birmingham, was disappointing. Marination had failed to soften the chunks of lamb, leaving them tough on the teeth, despite delicate but undistinguished spicing. The clay pot of kulfi (Rs. 110), exquisitely nutty, seemed alien to Baltistan, which is known to have no desserts.

Ghosh, allied with Indian master chef Balbhadra Singh, improvised on the menu. Singh, the brain behind the Mumbai centaur's Balti-style Pakhtoon restaurant, who writes cookery columns in Meerut and Agra periodicals, explains that Balti cuisine shuns ground ginger, garlic, and onion pastes, standard curry-thickeners in north Indian fare, in favour of fine chopping. Ghosh adds: "Pakistani food is not really well-known in Bangalore. It's not very spicy, so I thought I'd give it a try at the festival."

Fine sentiments. But some unresolved questions linger. How did dishes like prawns in coconut milk or sole in coconut and cream appear on this table, when both seafood and coconuts would be alien to a landlocked cuisine? Why was the festival ambience distinguished by woven palm-leaf partitions and bandhej dupattas, which connote South Indian ceremonial mandapams and Rajasthani folklore to us?

These puzzles apart, the festival is worth a visit if you fancy your curries spiced but not fiery. Balti cuisine, no matter its mysterious origins, promises you that.

(For dinner reservations, call Le Meridien at 2262233 and ask for the La Brasserie desk at Ext. 4471/72).

ADITI DE

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