Almost a year ago, while on the topic of Indian food, a colleague visiting from the UK mentions that the balti is very popular in Birmingham. “You know, the curry is served in a balti“. I did not know that. Perhaps my countenance gave it away, for her next question put me in the spot. “Don’t you know what a balti is?”

One must, as a general rule of thumb, never question a brown guy on food. For one, there are far too many recipes than there are pages in the dictionary. And there are multiple ways of preparing a dish, thanks to a healthy disregard for following instructions in the recipe, and passing them around by word of mouth. But there is a far more compelling reason than this, and one that specifically applies to men.

The stereotypical Indian man exists beyond the confines of the kitchen. Any interest in knowing the name of the food served, if you are not Sanjeev Kapoor, is a feigned attempt at a compliment. For a long time we enjoyed this prerogative, and there are those that still admit to doing so. Somewhere along the way, the world became obsessed with equality, and like erstwhile princes deprived of their princeliness estates and forced into the workforce, the Indian male was deprived of his manliness privileges, and forced to perform acts that he is clearly not trained to handle – such as casting mustard seeds into a cauldron of burning hot oil – one that, for the information of my male compatriots, is best done from a distance of at least 2 feet, never mind the splutter. Therefore when Mr. India is confronted with a question that tests his knowledge of food, he may be sincere in his ignorance of that specific item he is asked about and not food in general, but fears that in pleading ignorance he may inadvertently play himself into the stereotype.

It was not simply the above concern that kept me at a momentary loss of a response to the question posed by my querulous colleague. I admit I had never heard of a balti with reference to food. But I have heard of balti– or baldi – brightly colored buckets used to store or carry water; typical of our bathrooms transforming them into daylight discos and making the western restrooms appear duller in comparison. Yet to use the balti for anything other than acts of ablution was not a savory thought. A part of me craved to grasp this moment to set the record straight; to defend my ignorance with another related bit of knowledge of the I-dont-know-X-but-I-know-Y type. Then again, my thoughts went out to my immigrant brethren who, for reasons unknown to me, decided to use the balti to serve food, unaware that it would find new fame in an alien land. And while I don’t quite believe that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil will cause a tornado in Texas, I would wager on my badmouthing of the balti resulting in a sizable Indian immigrant population in the UK losing their means of livelihood . So I decided to take one for the team and responded with a mere shrug – my subtle non-verbal equivalent of I-neither-confirm-nor-deny-that-accusation. By that time my interrogator’s interest in a response had long since waned, and the matter stayed at that.

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About a week back, while looking up food stubs on Wikipedia, I happened on the balti, and the memory of this exchange from long ago came back. The wiki-entry refers to the balti as a ‘British-type of curry cooked and served in a wok made of cast iron”. The origin of the word for the dish is somewhat ambiguous. One claim is that it comes from the Baltistan province in Kashmir and refers to the food from that region. The other reference is the one I had alluded to – the ‘balti’ of the bucket kind. But here’s the interesting bit. The word ‘balti’ or ‘baldi’ for bucket comes, not from Hindi, or Urdu, or Sanskrit, as one might guess, but from the Portuguese balde. And balde in Spanish also means a bucket.

So let’s set the record straight: there is a British-Indian dish (think of it as Indian-Chinese) alien perhaps to all Indians outside the UK, that supposedly derives its name from a Portuguese/Spanish word for a bucket. By some weird coincidence, the balti – both the bucket and the food – has more to do with Europe than with India.

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