Birmingham. The greatest city in the world. A melting pot of people of all backgrounds, cultures, religions, and races. The perfect home for the Commonwealth games. Whether you live in Birmingham, or are visiting for the games, now is the ideal time to embrace the wonderfully rich and diverse cooking of the Commonwealth. We have it all here, or at least most of it, dotted around the city in places that Birmingham owes it greatness to more than any fountain or metal fronted shopping centre. I have often said that the best food is outside the city centre, which it is, but its beating heart is more often than not on the roads less travelled: from the garam masala that perfumes the Ladypool Road to the sting of scotch bonnet on Soho Road. You’ll learn more about Birmingham from these roads than any guide book.
Here are the best places to celebrate the food of the Commonwealth. Naturally, some countries are represented more than others in Birmingham and in some instances, I have had to band multiple countries together due to the restaurants in question doing much of the same. But I’ve tried, which is more than the tired lists of best burgers and bottomless brunches for tourists in the city centre you can expect to see thrown about over the coming weeks.
Birmingham’s oldest Pakistani restaurant is in the eyes of many still its best. A no frills dining experience found in a row of shops on Alcester Road, the menu sits under smudged glass and the decor hasn’t changed for many years. If, and when, you go, stick to the specials, particularly the Haleem which has an almost porridge-like consistency and strands of slowly cooked mutton.
For many Shababs serves the best Balti in the Balti Triangle, and when I say ‘many’ I absolutely include me. You come for balti, which, when broken down and analysed is pretty much a stir fry, served in molten hot deep steel bowls, with sauce that is fiery and hot and naan breads the size of the table. It is unapologetically big on flavour. It is almost perfect. Little wonder it is always full. I took a two-star chef not so long ago who always talks about going back.
Adils describe themselves as the pioneers of balti, and who am I to argue? The first Balti restaurant in Birmingham – sorry, make that the UK – is still going strong and still a firm favourite. Look deep into the vast menu and you’ll find traditional, lesser-known Pakistani dishes. All are a consistently high standard.
A gem in the Jewellery Quarter, Kopitiam is a cafe that spans the breadth of Malaysian cuisine with its menu. It’s authentic, honest, and very affordable. Go off piste and try the quintessential Kuala Lumpur dish, Hokkein Mee, or the sweet and spicy chicken curry, Ayam Meerah. It is a place that demands multiple visits in order to try all of the menu. Feeling brave? Order Ice Kacang for dessert and wonder why you have never thought to put sweetcorn, red bean, and condensed milk together in a dessert.
A Chinatown staple, the cooking is skilled and the spicing purposeful. They tend to stick to the Chinese dishes of Malay cuisine which makes up roughly a quarter of the population. They are famous for their Nasi Lemak and curried Laksa noodles for good reason, but I happen to think the Hainanese chicken rice is one of the best tenners spent in the city. They also do a very quirky marmite chicken wing.
Wrongly considered by many to be one of the best Indian restaurants in Birmingham, The Viceroy is Bengali in tradition and, mostly, menu. The most interesting stuff is found on the ‘meat and poultry’ part of the menu, with slow cooked bits of lamb and chicken in spicy gravies taking centre stage.
This mainstay of Kings Heath High Street is homely and forever busy. So busy in fact, that they once made me wait two and a half hours for a takeaway. Worth it though.
A little story you may have missed out on. Tom Cruise ate here. He even had two chicken tikka masalas. Two. I know, what a story. Upmarket Indian with the price tag to match, which successfully bridges between fine dining and more traditional Indian cookery. The prices have gone up considerably since the scientology nutjob stood in a presumably subliminal triangle outside this city centre spot, and this is not in any way a cheap night out. But two chicken tikka masalas. What a guy.
Is it really Indian? How much do I care? Aktar Islam’s flagship restaurant, is, according to the Michelin guide, a progressive Indian, so it’s going in. One of the crown jewels of the city, the Michelin starred restaurant nods to the dishes of Indian whilst applying classic French technique. Unmissable, Exhilerating. Exceptional.
Winner of Best Indian Restaurant at the British Curry Awards, Pushkar show no signs of dropping the impeccable standards they set almost two decades ago. This is high end, refined Indian, with the spicing subtle and well judged. Order the methi chicken and thank me forever.
Old school curry house in Acocks Green which sits several price points below the above three. No frills, full of honesty, and with the kindest of service. The curries of northern India are particularly well represented. I’ve been coming here for thirty years (the first ten without choice) and I have never had a bad curry.
A chain, but one that really tries to do Sri Lankan food justice, with some dishes far more successful than others. Think Hoppers (bowl pancakes with sambal) and Kotthu (chopped roti and eggs stir fried with vegetables and/or meat). A nice range of drinks make it an enjoyable night out.
Relaxed, almost refined Jamaican cooking that covers the classics extremely well. Both the oxtail and curried goat are extremely good, but it’s the ackee and saltfish which stars. The food is true to the country and the ingredients well sourced. It’s a bit of JQ gem.
In my eyes the best jerk chicken in Birmingham, rife with allspice and scotch bonnet and cooked the traditional way, over a charcoal drum. It’s all smoke and heat, with accurately cooked poultry. It’s addictive. They do other Jamaican food – and well, might I add – but the jerk is the reason to come.
I hate to band the islands of the Caribbean into one, but the menu of Mellows does that and it’s too good to not include. A stone’s throw from Brindley Place is the kind of cheery, homely food which will have you coming back repeatedly. Jerk isn’t just kept to chicken, but also prawns, lamb, and even jackfruit. It’s playful food that takes the norms of Caribbean cuisine and applies its own, Brummie, rules.
An odd one for a list but that focuses on great places to eat, but a Canadian I know who lives here is insistent that Tim Hortons is the quintessential Canadian experience and therefore it’s going in. Think sausage patties in breakfast buns and burgers and donuts, so many donuts, washed down with every possible coffee imaginable. Yes, it is fast food, but the experience is undeniably Canadian fast food.
A restaurant that has its roots in the non-Commonwealth country of Ethiopia but touches on Ugandan and Kenyan cuisine. It’s a hands-on affair quite literally, with most diners using rice as the sponge to capture various small plates of slowly cooked and highly flavoured dishes. It’s an experience which lives long in the memory for all the right reasons.
- Fine Dining,