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Join The Club

The club sandwich will never be as trendy as the hamburger. But its comeback is nearly as impressive, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Aug 01, 2008 17:25 IST
Vir Sanghvi

One of the earliest Rude Foods I wrote was about the club sandwich. I confessed to being a club sandwich fiend and explained the lengths I had gone to in an effort to track down the origin of the club sandwich. The most likely explanation appeared to be that it was invented in railway dining cars on American trains some time in the last century.

Perhaps it was a way of using up leftover chicken. But anyway, it was a distinctly American invention. I tried to trace the introduction of the club sandwich to India but had limited success. About the only conclusion I came to was that somewhere along the way, during the sandwich's journey from America to India, somebody added the egg which we now regard as an integral part of the sandwich.

In America, club sandwiches tend not to have any egg at all. Sometimes they have a slice of processed cheese. In India, the egg is an essential component of the sandwich and the cheese is strictly optional: some chefs like it and some don't. In the years since that column appeared, I have broadened the scope of my investigations into the club sandwich. I've discovered, for instance, that contrary to what we might imagine, the club sandwich is actually growing in popularity I have yet to find a hotel, anywhere in the world, that does not have the club sandwich on its menu.

Moreover, more and more hotels have worked out that the time when guests crave a club sandwich the most is late at night. It crops up, with astonishing regularity, on the night menus of most hotels. It is usually the one thing you can get in a hotel at four in the mornmg. I've learnt too that the club sandwich is now almost ubiquitous in Europe. Last week, I had an excellent club sandwich for lunch at L'Avenue, a chic restaurant on Paris's Avenue Montaigne.

A few days later I had what could well be the worst club sandwich in the world at the Brasserie at the tony Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland. Though I found it impossible to finish my Montreaux sandwich - at least partly because it fell apart in my hand - it was a popular choice. All around me, credulous French people and musically-inclined Americans (it was the week of the Montreux Jazz Festival) were holding on to club sandwiches. (If they didn't hold on tightly, the sandwiches collapsed.) In England, the club sandwich is now turning up on non-hotel restaurant menus even if the British interpretation of the term differs from ours. For instance, the signature dish at the Sotheby's Caf6 in London is the Lobster Club Sandwich - you are encouraged to order yours when you book your table! - but despite its popularity, it is not what you and I would call a club sandwich with two distinct layers of various ingredients. It is now generally accepted that the hamburger has been successfully revived.

Daniel Boulud, Joel Robuchon and Gordon Ramsay all do variations on the burger; French chefs are putting it on the menu and a new burger joint opens every week in London and New York. But what nobody seems to have noticed is the creeping ubiquity of another great American sandwich, the club sandwich. It wn neyer become as trendy as the hamburger But it has made a comeback that is nearly as impressive. A hamburger is easy to define: a minced beef patty between two rolls. So, at one level, is a club sandwich. It is a double-decker sandwich. But while there is a classic burger, there is no classic club sandwich. Because it has so many ingredients, it is hard to give a precise recipe. And yet, there are some things - apart from the architecture that we regard as integral to the club sandwich. It must, I think, have chicken, either roasted or boiled. The basic club sandwich taste comes from biting through bread to get to the chicken. After that, it is all a question of interpretation. It is usually agreed that there should be a little mayonnaise on one of the slices of bread and there must be some salad vegetables. Many people like Russian salad, arguing that this eliminates the need for mayonnaise and that chopped vegetables are easier to eat in a sandwich. Perhaps. But I still think it should have slices of tomato and cucumber Many chefs reckon that ham is integral to the recipe.

They are right because you need a salty, porky taste to lift the essentially bland taste of the chicken. But I think bacon is even better for exactly the same reasons. Among the best club sandwiches I've ever eaten is the room service version at Bombay's Grand Hyatt. It works because of the crunchiness of the high quality bacon that the kitchen uses. A good club sandwich should have good chicken, fresh salad vegetables, and excellent bacon. After that, everything else is negotiable, including the following: Cheese: Ido not mind cheese in a club sandwich but I rarely miss it. If you use bland processed Kraft / Amul slices, you might as well not bother. They add nothing to the taste. I can see the case for a slightly more strongly flavoured cheese but it is a difficult balance because you don't want it to overwhelm the flavours of the sandwich. A club sandwich is different from say, a ham and cheese sandwich where the cheese adds texture and merges with the flavour of the ham.

Cheese rarely adds texture to a club sandwich and too much of it can ruin the sandwich. Egg: Most of us are used to club sandwiches that contain egg but there's no unanimity on how the egg is to be used. A double-fried egg works sometimes if the bacon in the sandwich is crisp - that combination rarely fails. Some chefs use egg salad in place of Russian Salad. I'm not a fan of the Russian Salad version so I can see the case for substituting egg salad instead - especially if the egg salad has a nice flavour (a little mustard, perhaps) and good texture (watercress?).

I'm an agnostic about omelette as a filling. I don't think it adds anything except perhaps for a little texture. Plus it helps lower food costs in a non-vegetarian club sandwich because it's cheaper than bacon/ ham or chicken. Other meat: Many chefs substitute turkey for the chicken. That's fine if it is properly done but it rarely adds very much. I've had a version with duck which was very nice but you've got to get the duck moist and juicy for this substitution to work. You cannot substitute the bacon for salami on the grounds that a ham sandwich often tastes better with salami.

I am a great charcuterie lover but a club sandwich is not the right place for those slices of chorizo or air-dried ham. It needs the pure piggy flavour of good ham or crunchy bacon. Of course, you can go upmarket with the ham (though I think you would be wasting Serrano or some really good ham in a combination sandwich) or the bacon (pancetta etc.) but it's not really necessary Bread: White or whole-wheat? I'm no fan of white bread but that's how the sandwich was originally made. It works with whole-wheat bread but that's a function of the quality of the bread.

Strongly flavoured, multi-grain, and over-fancy breads can destroy the sandwich. As far as I can tell, the classic club sandwich was made with untoasted bread. But I think a deviation from the norm is not a bad idea. The Grand Hyatt serves a grned club sandwich and though the bread tends to get soggy if you wait too long, their sandwich works wonderfully well.

Common Pitfalls: The architecture is crucial to a Club Sandwich. You want a two-storey structure that remains stable as you lift it to your mouth. If it collapses or if the ingredients come flying out, then the chef has failed. A common mistake is to over-stuff a club sandwich in the manner of an American deli sandwich. This looks great when it is served but the appeal fades when you try and squeeze the damn thing into your mouth. It's meant to be a sandwich, not an audition for a porn movie. And when bits of tomato fly out and the mayonnaise dribbles down your wrist, you will curse the chef. Another problem is the quality of the ingredients. Remember that shorn of the two-tier architecture and the vegetables, a club sandwich is essentially a chicken and pork sandwich. So choose a tender slice of chicken (it must not be too dry as is so often the case) and flavourful bacon (or ham).

Once these two flavours marry your sandwich is on its way I've lost count of the number of bad club sandwiches I've eaten at hotels around the world. There's a reason for this; I usually order my club sandwich from Room Service late in the night. But at that time, the kitchen is almost closed, the chefs have gone home and some not-very-good fellow has been left on duty. So the kitchen trainee or useless chef who gets landed with room service duty in the middle of the night puts together a sandwich without bothering too much about the details: how much mayonnaise? etc. The two worst sandwiches I've had in India have been at my two favourite Bombay hotels, both normally distinguished by good food. In both cases, it was the monkey-in-the-kitchen syndrome. A word of praise therefore for the Grand Hyatt where the quality never wobbles. And to the Bombay Four Seasons where I had an amazing room service club sandwich long after midnight. All too often hotels forget that a club sandwich is the essential room service dish: lighter than a fkill meal and more filling than a snack. Get that wrong and it is a sad commentary on the hotel.