Balti Base Gravy (Shababs).  

This recipe was derived by discussions I had with Zaf Hussain, the head chef at the world famous Shababs Balti restaurant in Birmingham. I visited to record some videos for my You Tube channel and had the opportunity to delve deep into the chef’s practices, with a view to recreating that fabulous balti taste at home.

Zaf divulged how he makes his base gravy, which is made in huge batches at the restaurant and involves a whopping 50Kg of onions. Obviously much smaller batch size is all that is needed for use at home. I’ve scaled the recipe down to size which will make enough for approximately 8 balti curries.

Please also read this Balti Insights article, and try out this Balti Chicken recipe.

One of the most important factors in any curry is the base gravy as it forms the underlying foundation of flavour. The Shababs base gravy is a little different from the more typical Bangladeshi Indian restaurant versions – while the only vegetable used is onion (except for the ginger and garlic), it’s cooked with whole spices which are subsequently blended into it, and it’s heavier on the oil and tomato content than usual. Another difference is that there is no generic spice ‘mix’ powder used in Shababs’s base gravy and baltis – the powdered spices are kept simple for the base, with only paprika and turmeric used. Likewise for the balti curries, with individual spices tailored according to each menu item.

This recipe uses a normal amount of salt, so extra is required according to my recipes you use it in. Zaf explained that to keep the salt level consistent he adds no extra salt while cooking a balti curry, but he adds extra to the base to compensate. This is to reduce the risk of over or under seasoning individual dishes during cooking.

Once cooked this balti base gravy will be thicker than is required to make curry with. If freezing, do so in its thick state because it will save on freezer space. Before cooking a balti, dilute it with water to the consistency of somewhere between full fat milk and single cream.

Feel free to use this balti base in any curry, not just baltis. 

There’s something refreshingly unique about a genuine Birmingham Balti. Strictly speaking, to be qualified as such, it must be cooked in an authentic thin pressed steel balti bowl on a high flame and served in it also.


  • 125ml Oil
  • 750g Brown Onions, peeled and roughly chopped (unpeeled weight). Peeled weight approx. 650g
  • 40g Ginger/Garlic Paste
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • Whole Spices
    » 8 Green Cardamom Pods, split open
    » 3 Black Cardamom Pods, split open
    » 5cm Cassia Bark, broken into small pieces
    » 6 Cloves
    » 4 Bay Leaves (Asian or the common variety)
  •  2 tsp Turmeric
  • 2 TBSP Paprika (not the smoked variety)
  • 1½ tsp Chilli Powder
  • 1 x 400g Tin of Plum Tomatoes
  • 2 TBSP Tomato Purée (undiluted)
  • 1 Litre of Water
Balti Bowls at Shababs Restaurant, Birmingham


  1. Add the oil to a large pan (minimum 3 litres capacity) and turn heat to medium-high.
  2. Add the whole spices, onions, ginger/garlic paste and salt.
  3. Cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning.
  4. Cover and turn down heat to very low, to achieve a gentle simmer. Leave to cook for 15 minutes.
  5. Next add the turmeric, paprika, and chilli powder. Turn the heat back up to medium, and cook for a further couple of minutes, stirring very frequently.
  6. Add the tomato purée, the tinned plum tomatoes, and the water.
  7. Mix everything together then cover.
  8. Conventional Method: Leave to cook on low heat for at least an hour. The longer you cook it for the better the flavour. Stir every half hour.
  1. Pressure Cooker Method: 25 minutes once up to high pressure.
  2. Remove from the heat and blend (including the whole spices) until very smooth. There will probably be some tiny dark specks in the gravy from the spices – It’s perfectly fine to leave them in, or you can sieve them out if you prefer.
  3. Return to a low heat and cook for a further 15 minutes uncovered.
  4. The base is now ready, but when cooking a balti with it dilute it with water to the consistency somewhere between full fat milk and single cream.


  • All spoon measurements are level (1 tsp = 5ml, 1 TBSP = 15ml).

Books by Richard Sayce

Indian Restaurant Curry at Home Volume 1
Indian Restaurant Curry at Home Volume 2 Front Cover
Curry Compendium Cookbook


  1. GDLivo

    Hi Richard.
    I’m about to try this Balti Base Gravy. Just letting you know you left out where to add the chilli powder. I assume you add it with the Turmeric and Paprika. Looking forward to trying a “Real Authentic Birmingham Balti Chicken” as served in Shababs.
    I’ve already cooked Chef Zaf’s Balti Chicken from scratch (ie: not Base Gravy method) and I really enjoyed it, so it will be interesting to compare this method.

    • Richard Sayce

      Hi Greg and thanks for your comment. I’ve updated the method to include the addition of the chilli powder – thanks. Hope you like baltis cooked with this base.

  2. UK_JEZ

    Hi Rich,

    In your recipie you say 300ml of gravy is that 300ml of thick solution or the 300ml of thinned solution?



    • Richard Sayce

      Hi Les. It’s the thinned version.

  3. UK_JEZ

    Nice one Thanks Rich have a very Happy New Year

    • Richard Sayce

      Thanks, and you too.

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