Birmingham plans a Balti theme park to market Asian heritage

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The Independent Online
FEW THINGS these days can escape the eagle-eyed gaze of the marketing moguls. And now Birmingham's humble balti curry is preparing for an elaborate makeover.

Work will begin early next year on creating the country's first "Balti Quarter", complete with visitor centre, hotel, shops and offices. The idea was put forward by council chiefs and restaurant owners to try to spice up the image of one of the city's most marketable commodities.

It will focus on the so-called "Balti Triangle" of Sparkbrook and Sparkhill, an area that houses some 50 restaurants. The details, including the name of the development, are still being finalised, but colourful Asian gateways, carved elephants and a minaret are among the suggestions.

Also included in the plan are such improvements as brighter street lighting, CCTV and more late-night shopping. New car and coach parks, a bazaar- style ethnic market and an Asian heritage centre are planned to attract daytime visitors. Main routes through the region such as the M6 and A38 will also be adorned with "Balti Bazaar" direction signs.

The balti has emerged as a favourite dish of the Midlands' middle classes, but attracts relatively few adherents from further afield. Research by the consultants Cooper Simms found that restaurants in the Balti Triangle get 11,000 visitors every weekend, who spend a total of more than pounds 80,000. But only 5 per cent of the mainly affluent mix of professionals, salesmen and students come from outside the region to eat.

Now the plan is to transform the area into a prime attraction for tourists and business visitors to the Second City. The council has secured pounds 1.2m from the European urban regeneration budget and has also donated a 4.2- acre plot of land where the visitor centre, hotel and bazaar will be built.

Javed Choudhary, secretary of the Asian Balti Restaurant Association, based in Birmingham, said: "This is very exciting and it is going to be absolutely marvellous for the city. Like Cadbury this will enhance the reputation of the whole of Birmingham and not just help the restaurateurs."

The exact origins of the balti, which literally means "bucket - the metal dish it is cooked and served in - are still murky, with several restaurants in the city claiming to be the first to have brought the dish over from northern Pakistan. Mr Choudhary said: "It arrived with immigrants in about 1960 in Birmingham - which is, and always will be, Britain's balti capital."