Two Brits are pushing for the Birmingham Balti curry to receive EU protection against cheap knock-offs. Find out what makes a Balti curry so unique.

BIRMINGHAM, England—France has Champagne. Spain has Serrano ham. And in a restaurant on the outskirts of this postindustrial city, Matthew O’Callaghan is tucking into a British dish that he hopes will soon join this constellation of elite brands: a curry called the Birmingham Balti.

Mr. O’Callaghan is chairman of the U.K. Protected Food Names Association, which spearheads the country’s efforts to win protection under European law for local food and beverage products that may be threatened by knockoffs. This lofty designation is a no-brainer for some of Europe’s food superstars: not just Champagne, but also Italy’s Pizza Napoletana and French Gruyère cheese.

For many of the British foods Mr. O’Callaghan takes on, however, the road to protected status is decidedly uphill. Mr. O’Callaghan’s sometimes lengthy campaigns have helped less-celebrated British foods win protection. Victories include the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie, Stornoway Black Pudding and a Northern Irish eel.

Birmingham Balti

“British food is unique,” says Mr. O’Callaghan, after tearing a piece of naan bread and scooping up the remains of a Birmingham Balti. “It’s the skill of the British people and how they have turned some of these ingredients into some of the iconic foods not only of Britain but of Europe.”

He is an unabashed cheerleader for his client cuisines. “I think we beat them [Europeans] on cheese, I think we beat them on meat and I think we beat them on pies,” says the 61-year-old Briton. Who would have guessed?

Over two decades Mr. O’Callaghan lent his know-how to about 20 different British foods. He has scoured Homer’s ancient Greek texts for references to black pudding, brokered a truce between butchers warring over the original recipe of the Newmarket sausage and appeared on the telly talking up the medieval origins of custard pies. One of his latest projects: advising the Birmingham Balti Association on how to get their curry recognized by Brussels.

A Birmingham Balti being cooked at the Shahi Nan Kebab House in Birmingham.
WSJ

The curry crusade comes as the British food protection movement hits a crossroads. After protecting about 60 foods, people at the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—which oversees the British protection process—need to drum up new applicants. Officials are preparing to fan out across the country, attending food festivals and orchestrating a public relations push, a spokeswoman says. Foods targeted include English mustard and Scottish oats.

European laws, which came into force in 1993, aim to protect local foods based on factors including where they are made or whether they use traditional recipes. Officials evaluate foods on their historical and local origins. Products that pass get legal protection from imitation in the EU.

But the process is slow, taking two years on the average. A series of British foods are struggling to get past Brussels’s stringent rules, which require both a national and European consultation. “Traditional Bramley Apple Pie Filling” has been stuck at the European Commission for six years. Welsh Laverbread, a dish primarily made from cooked seaweed, is also awaiting approval. The makers of the Bakewell Pudding, a jam and pastry dessert, gave up after 17 draft applications, says Mr. O’Callaghan.

The Birmingham Balti Association wanted to avoid such difficulties. Three years ago, its chairman, Andy Munro, approached Mr. O’Callaghan after reading about him in a Birmingham newspaper. His pitch:

The Balti is unique because it is fast-cooked in vegetable oil, uses off-the-bone meat, dried spices and is served in a steel dish called a Balti. Some food companies are “abusing” the name Balti as a term to describe generic curries, says Mr. Munro. The group hopes to get a level of EU protection that ensures Birmingham Baltis are made according to a certain recipe but, unlike Champagne, wouldn’t restrict where they are produced.

In the 1990s Mr. O’Callaghan cut his teeth with an 11-year campaign to protect the Melton Mowbray pork pie. He noticed shops peddling a version made with pink colored pork. “The pork should be gray,” he argued. His pork pie association together with the U.K. government won a subsequent legal case. A sign at the entrance to the town of Melton Mowbray now reads “Rural Capital of Food.”

When a Swiss journalist recently challenged the notion that British pies could rank alongside Champagne, Mr. O’Callaghan took umbrage.

“Excuse me,” he said. “We’re not the ones fermenting cheap grapes and putting them in bottles.” (Mr. O’Callaghan says that, in any case, it was the British who invented sparkling wine.)

Questioned about whether Traditional Grimsby smoked fish really needs to be protected, Mr. O’Callaghan was incredulous. “They have a culinary masterpiece,” he says, “The fish is cold smoked!”

To help the curry project Mr. O’Callaghan spent several weeks writing a detailed history of Birmingham Baltis based on word-of-mouth accounts and scientific analysis. His thesis: When Pakistani immigrants arrived in Birmingham in the 1970s they modified their curries to Western tastes, making them both faster to cook and healthier to eat. Worried that other British cities might complain if Birmingham protected just the word “Balti,” which has become a byword for curries in the U.K.—he suggested an amendment. “We decided to call it Birmingham Balti,” he says.

Not everyone sees the point in protecting a curry. Asif Ali, whose father is one of many who claim to have invented a popular creamy curry called the chicken tikka masala, railed against protection. “A customer said his curry was too dry and Dad just found some tomato soup left in a tin,” the Glasgow restaurateur says. “It is a gift to the world. Let people do what they want with it.”

Nevertheless, the Balti proposal was welcomed by U.K. food officials. European officials are now studying the idea and have sent back a list of questions. They want proof that the Birmingham Balti has existed for 30 years, officials say. Mr. Munro is cautiously upbeat. “I can’t see the Greeks objecting to Birmingham,” he says. Italians also tend to be big fans of Baltis, he adds. “It’s a very social food.”

Whatever the outcome, one man won’t be eating a chicken Birmingham Balti soon: Mr. O’Callaghan. The chairman of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association is a vegetarian.

Write to Max Colchester at max.colchester@wsj.com