Despite living on the periphery of Birmingham pretty much my entire life, I don’t think I’ve ever had a curry in the world-famous Balti Triangle. Well, I may have been once or twice but I don’t remember them – most likely due to alcohol-induced amnesia – so I’m counting this as my first proper visit. The first time I could actually take it all in and appreciate everything around me – especially the food!
As the name suggests, the Balti Triangle sprawls across Ladypool Road, Stoney Lane and Stratford Road just south of the city centre. Deciding which restaurant to pick from the many that line the streets alongside clothes shops and supermarkets isn’t an easy task. We decided on Shababs – one of the longstanding names on Ladypool Road that’s had plenty of praise and still seems to attract plenty of people.
Shababs was founded in 1987 and boasts on its website that it’s all about “simple food done well consistently”. It serves up a good old traditional balti served up in the same dish it’s cooked in and apparently the oldest Shababs baltis is over 18 years old. Plenty of grand claims!
The food may be traditional but the restaurant itself is as modern as they come, with funky decor and furniture, a few booths, mirrored walls and plenty of glass. And let’s not forget the glass-covered menus laid out across the tables, greeting you with the exhaustive list of baltis as soon as you sit down. Unsurprisingly, Shababs isn’t licensed but you can take your own booze or grab some from a nearby supermarket. And if you’re happy to stay teetotal there’s plenty of choice of soft drinks, from the normal fizzy drinks to a selection of lassis.
Since we’d been looking forward to our balti blowout the whole weekend, we decided to go the whole hog (as if we don’t always do that hey!) So we decided to share three starters between two. The ‘house mix grill’, a mushroom bhaji and then some tandoori wings recommended to us by our waiter.
The house mix grill was a meaty mix of chicken tikka, sheekh kebab and fish tikka. The chicken was moist, the sheekh kebab flavoured with a heady mix of garlic, ginger and coriander and seasoned just right, and the fish – originally a bit of a mystery but something we later found to be silver hake – was tender and succulent.
The mushroom bhaji was in line with Shababs’ claim – simple and done well, the light batter on the outside with its own delicate spice and no hint of mush in the mushrooms. But the winner for me were the tandoori chicken wings – no wonder the waiter recommended them. Again, simple but brilliantly executed. Moist, tender, with just the right spicy smokiness that comes from a proper tandoor. We may have had three starters between two, but they were refreshingly light, with a subtlety of flavour that I have to confess I wasn’t expecting.
On to the main event! Despite promising myself I would have a tandoori main course in the name of healthiness, I felt it would be utter sacrilege to visit the Balti Triangle without having a balti, so opted for chicken, vegetable and spinach. One of the things I loved about Shababs was the flexibility and the chance to tailor your balti to exactly how you want. And when we were asked how spicy we wanted our dishes it didn’t feel like a cursory check but like the staff were actually interested in making sure we loved our meal.
And I did. The balti came out in all its glory, sizzling and freshly cooked. The chunks of chicken were tender and ram-packed with flavour, surrounded by spinach and littered with black eye beans – something I’ve never had in a curry but I’m told is pretty authentic. Alongside the spinach they made for an almost creamy texture rather than a few chunks of chicken floating in an oily sauce. The dish just felt a bit more ‘whole’ and complex than some of the baltis I’ve had before and reminded me how good a curry really can be.
Mr M, a fan of a pathia, took advantage of the knowledge from our rather helpful waiters and asked what he could have that was most similar. He was pointed in the direction of a Jalfrazee so opted for the lamb tikka masala version, made up to madras hot. He was impressed too – it had the same sweetness that he loves about a pathia, coupled with a good old kick that doesn’t mask the flavours of the ingredients but brings a lingering warmth to the dish.
I noticed that the meat in Jamie’s dish was cut much smaller than my chicken, something I’ve never seen before but when you think about it is a bit of a no-brainer. Meat can stay a bit tougher than chicken in a curry so smaller chunks reduces the risk of encountering big chewy lumps of flesh that can be offputting even to a carnivore like me.
We tested out the fried rice which, as you’d expect, was pretty much flawless – buttery and light and delicious when mixed in with the balti. Jamie also tried Shababs’ chapattis which, though much larger than ones you get from the average takeaway, were light and perfect for dunking and scooping.
It was, however, the tarka dhal that I ordered in lieu of any kind of rice or bread that was the true champion of our visit to the Balti Triangle. Jamie usually steers clear of dhal when I order it, seeing it as a pointless soup. But this was a whole different ballgame. Rich, thick and almost creamy, it was packed with flavour, almost like a curry sauce itself.
We were both blown away by it and, as you can see from the picture, after an initial taste it was impossible to hold back even long enough for a picture. I would drive all the way back to Birmingham to get this dhal from Shababs. And apparently if you have the version with spinach it’s even better. Give me more!
I’d love to have tried some of the desserts at Shababs. Alongside the stereotypical ‘Pingus’ and chocolate torte there’s a great range of classics from Rasmalai to Kulfi and Gulab Jamun – one of my faves. But alas, we were pretty full and are trying to be slightly healthier than usual so we resisted and left full and happy.
The Balti Triangle and Ladypool Road aren’t just round the corner from us – it’s pretty much an hour’s drive to Brum – and I would gladly drive that far on a far more regular basis to get curry this good. First of all, it’s an institution and I’m rather embarrassed I haven’t been more often and secondly, it’s a darn good experience.
The service was great – friendly and accommodating. We were even pointed in the direction of another great restaurant by the staff as we left. And at every step of our meal we were given guidance and advice to make sure the meal was the best it could be for us, regardless of whether we’re balti aficionados or not. Oh, and it was cheap too! It’s great value in and of itself and it’s amazing how much smaller your bill is when you’re not adding booze to it! In short, Shababs we’ll be back!
We were treated to our meal at Shababs by Travelodge, but I did not guarantee a positive review. This is my own opinion from a curry lover but a balti beginner.