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Journey of the Indian sandwich

Most modern Indian sandwiches originated either in Mumbai or in other parts of Western India, and they came about because of the British.

Vir Sanghvi

Ask any Indian if sandwiches are part of our cuisine and you will be told that they aren’t. The nearest we come to a sandwich, foodies will tell you, is a roll or a kathi kebab. We don’t use much bread, you will be informed, so we make do with rotis or chapatis when it comes to making dishes that count as Indian sandwiches.

This sounds good. But actually, it is almost completely untrue.

First of all, bread is part of our tradition. Food historians normally credit travellers, traders and armies from the Middle East and Central Asia with the introduction of baking to India. Certainly, it is true that there seems to have been virtually no mention of maida in our texts till the medieval period. Even today, traditional bakeries tend to be owned by Muslims or more accurately, originally established by Muslims.

Except that when it comes to bread, the credit doesn’t go to Muslims. It goes to the Portuguese.

When the Portuguese got to Goa, they longed for bread. Because there was none to be found in India, they baked their own, in makeshift ovens. They could not find yeast so they used a little liquor (probably feni) to ferment the dough.

The Portuguese bread came to be called pav (or pao) after the Portuguese word for bread and eventually found its way to Mumbai. The only people who understood what to do with it were Muslims so a strange Catholic-Muslim marriage of convenience took place with Muslim bakeries baking Goan-style pav and the bread quickly being accepted into the diet of the city’s Muslims.

Except that pav does not lend itself easily to making sandwiches so there is no great Goan sandwich. Nor is there a great Mumbai Muslim sandwich. Bread was used in the way Indians had always used rotis: to gather up gravies and to be eaten with curry dishes.

Goans will eat their chorise (their version of the Portuguese chorizo sausage) with pav but nobody ever thought of inventing a Goan hot dog. In Mumbai, they will pair keema with pav but they won’t make a sandwich.

The closest Mumbai comes to a vegetarian pav-and-gravy dish (apart from Keema Pav) is Pav Bhaji, which was made originally for Gujarati merchants who would leave the Cotton Exchange in the early hours of the morning after the global cotton prices had come in.

But there are more modern Indian sandwiches and most of them originate either in Mumbai city or in other parts of Western India. None of them have anything to do with the Portuguese or even, Indian Muslims. They came about because of the British.

It was the British who introduced the modern white bread loaf to India. Originally, the loaf was made in the traditional way but by the 1960s and 1970s, large industrial bakeries were producing inexpensive bread using a multitude of short cuts that reduced costs significantly. One such short cut is known as the Chorleywood Process (it still accounts for the bulk of British supermarket bread though its popularity in the UK is fading). Our big bread companies still use variations of this process, which is why Indian packaged white bread tastes nothing like the real thing.

But as the popularity of sliced bread spread, it offered an exciting opportunity for street vendors. All over Mumbai, stalls offering omelette-toast sprang up. And then (in the 1960s, perhaps) somebody invented the Bombay Sandwich. This consisted of vegetables (often, mainly potatoes) encased in two slices of white bread, which had been lined with butter and chutney.

As far as I can tell, that was the first popular Indian sandwich. But by the 1960s, ordinary sandwiches were losing out to a newer kind of sandwich: the hamburger.

Curiously, nobody ever made a good Indian hamburger. Even in the days when beef was legal, people were nervous about cooking it, believing that it would be rejected by the market.

So hamburgers were usually made from goat keema but no one had the imagination to create a great Indian masala patty in that era.

Instead the hamburger bun was seized on for a new kind of sandwich. There are controversies about the invention of vada pav but the consensus is that it became popular in the mid to late 1970s in suburban Mumbai, often at train stations.

The original vada pav may have relied on the pav of Mumbai (as in pav bhaji) but in no time at all, white bread, industrial hamburger-type buns took over. In health terms, the vada pav had little to recommend it. It consisted of a fried vegetable vada, inside a chutney-smeared bun. But it was spicy and filling and became first, an instant hit and then, a symbol of Mumbai’s Maharashtrian identity.

As you may recall, I have never been a great fan of vada pav because a) I am not wild about white bread – I loathe the bread-pakora too and b) starch-on-starch has always struck me as being too heavy. I can understand a sandwich made from meat or vegetables. But potato on bread leaves me cold.

But while I may one day be persuaded of the virtues of a vada-pav, the one Indian sandwich I loathe is definitely Gujarati in origin though it did not come from Mumbai.

Legend and Wikipedia have it that the dabeli was invented in the Kutch region of Gujarat. There is even a shop that claims to have invented it and dabeli masala is made in Kutch and sent all over India. 

The original dabeli preceded the vada-pav (apparently) because it was invented it the 1960s and the bread went through the same pav-to-bun journey as vada-pav. There are many versions of the dabeli but I gather that the original had mashed, boiled potatoes with chutney at its centre with lots of masala and something added for texture. (Peanuts are one option.)

As more people are familiar with the food of Indore than the food of Kutch, the famous dabelis all tend to come from there and from the cities of Gujarat. There is no one recipe but the consensus is that if you fry the potato into a patty then it becomes a vada-pav and stops being a dabeli.

I should be embarrassed to say that I had never heard of the dabeli till a few years ago but frankly I am not. The dish is an abomination and if I never eat another dabeli, I will not miss it at all – in fact, I will be relieved, I really can’t see why people love the damn thing so much. My first dabeli was eaten in Delhi at the Street Food Festival. At this year’s edition of the Festival, I was intrigued to see vendors from so many Western and Central Indian cities serving their own versions of the dabeli. All of them were uniformly terrible but the main point of interest for me was that potatoes were no longer considered an essential part of the recipe.

And the dabeli now has the ultimate haute cuisine accolade: it turns up on Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent menu as an amuse bouche. (Of course, Manish has re-invented it: the bread is made from potato, etc.) 

The single most disgusting dish I had at the Street Food Festival this year was the Chinese Dabeli from Gujarat – made with Maggi Noodles inside the bun.

So yes, there are many great (and not so great) Indian sandwiches, contrary to what we like to claim. None of them is very good and two promising contenders have now been nearly forgotten. Satish Arora, the first modern Indian executive chef (at the Mumbai Taj) invented a Spicy Mutton Burger in 1973. I loved it but the dish was soon taken off the menu. Arora also invented the Chicken Tikka Sandwich, which he put on the Room Service Menu calling it the Room Service Special. It lasted a while on the menu but I doubt if today’s generation of Taj chefs knows what it is. Which is a shame because a decade after Arora created his sandwich, the Chicken Tikka Sandwich became a staple of British sandwich houses. Nobody remembers that it was Arora’s idea. The only great Chicken Tikka Sandwich I have had in the post Arora era was not at the Mumbai Taj but ironically enough, at the Mumbai Oberoi where the brilliant but low-key chef Satbir Bakshi offers a gluten-free version as well.

But mostly, we eat things like the Chinese dabeli and bastardise our great cuisines.

It makes me sad.

(HT Media)

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