No Indian sandwiches? Really?

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Zubin D’souza

I read a recent article by a food writer of great repute and who has been a lifelong icon and inspiration for me and countless others. The article in question lamented that there was nothing that India could contribute in the sandwich section.

Now, in this lay my quandary. Was I to let this pass since the writer is one that I hero-worship or do I come out in defence of my Indian heritage and chef profession?

Ultimately it wasn’t much of a tussle of wills and since you are already reading it, you know which part of my conscience won.

The sandwich was invented by the chef of John Montagu who held the title of Fourth Earl of Sandwich. The earl being a man obsessed with his card game of cribbage often never wanted to leave the sport for something as plebeian as meals. Instead he instructed his chef to bring him meat between two slices of bread so that his fingers did not get dirty and he could continue playing.

The fad quickly caught on with the swish set and haute society who all wanted to have what ‘Sandwich was having’. And voila, the sandwich never really dimmed in popularity after that.

There were attempts all over the world to create versions that suited the native population.

The Vietnamese used the baguette making skills of their French colonisers along with local ingredients to create the stupendous ‘banh mi’ sandwich. The former British colony of Hong Kong went a step further and baked a couple of ingredients together to create the famous

sausage bun.

The list was endless and the adaptations were plentiful. Could India with her amazing creativity as far as food was concerned be left far behind?

Till the Portuguese and the British introduced us to the art of bread making, the only form of breads available in the country were the

unleavened sort.

Most Indians did not use natural yeast or fermentation for their food; and a tryst with the Europeans gave us a much larger palette to play with.

Bombay which has since been renamed to Mumbai was the epicentre of all experiments with bread.

The Zoroastrians who set up the series of Irani restaurants introduced us to the ubiquitous bun-maska and brun-maska. The former a soft fruity bun and the latter a crisp hard rustic loaf and both slathered with thick dollops of hand churned butter.

The vegetarian answer to the burger was the vada-pav which is a soft roll filled with a fried, chickpea batter coated spicy potato patty. Not content with just having the mushy patty filled centre, others experimented with potato and pea filled samosas or crisp chickpea batter fried vegetables to create samosa-pav and bhajiya-pav respectively.

In North India, streets offered a version of the vada pav called the bun-tikki. This is a shallow fried potato patty that is drenched in sweet tamarind and spicy mint chutneys.

The Muslim dominated alleys of South Mumbai offer the kebab-pao which is a meat filled soft roll that is complimented with onions and mint leaves.

Then of course there were the chutney sandwiches which were filled with mint and coriander goodness. Luckily the generous amounts of butter helped to soothe the tummy before the kick of the chillies set in.

These sandwiches could also be lathered up in a chickpea batter and deep fried to get the golden crisp sandwich pakora.

Some innovative blokes took this a step further with the increased availability of packaged sliced white bread. The chutney sandwiches were filled with a spicy potato mix and toasted in an innovative metal compartment that was heated on a coal brazier. The pumpkin ketchup drenched toast sandwich was here to stay!

Often people referred to that as the Bombay Sandwich. Unfortunately, there is a slight variation since the Bombay sandwich includes an assortment of vegetables along with raw beetroot and a sprinkling of dried mango powder.

We happen to be a country that made even the famous McDonald’s chain kowtow to our demands when they moved in. The vegetable burger and potato burger on their menus may not exactly have been invented by Indians but were definitely inspired by them.

We don’t mind inspiration coming in from anywhere; we would grab it with both hands as a prize winning opportunity and twist it to suit

our tastes.

We are probably the only country in the world with a vegetarian version of the Club sandwich where a delicately spiced vegetable patty replaces the carnivorous nature of a

traditional Club.

We also managed to take the famous Russian Salad and blend the creamy goodness to form the Russian salad sandwich.

And why stop while we were ahead? We have sandwiches stuffed with spiced thick yoghurt called raita sandwich and a mayonnaise slathered paneer with capsicum and chillies called the paneer jungli. The chicken jungli exists as well where chicken or chicken tikka replaces the paneer.

The Goan spiced pork sausages lent themselves beautifully to the chourico-pao. The bread used here however is the sublime and earthy whole-wheat poie.

Although omelette sandwiches have been popular across the country especially with down-on-their-luck students, the Goans went one above and added rosso to it which was usually the famous xacuti sauce.

We shouldn’t also forget the unique hotdogs that are a staple of every Catholic schoolchild’s picnic. The sausage in it is replaced by a moist and slightly spicy thick mince sauce that gives it an appearance of a sloppy Joe. But when the soft rolls are pulled out at lunchtime and they have absorbed most of the juices, they are incredibly delicious

and unbeatable!

And we did not restrict our sandwich experiences to bread alone. Our specialty has always been unleavened bread and with that we made wraps like the kathi roll, or the

filled chickpea batter crepes called stuffed chillas.

And when we did like to experiment with sandwiches, there were fermented and steamed sandwich dhoklas or rice batter idli sandwiches.

Sandwiches have always been an integral part of the Indian cuisine. They may not lend themselves as well to the high end diners frequented by the well-heeled, but to the poor boy born on the wrong side of the tracks, they were

heaven indeed!