Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Hits and misses on the sandwich scene
India is upping its sandwich game. Move past the sourdough clichés and gourmet fillings to see what’s holding it together
It is not often that the same food trend occurs at two different levels simultaneously. Most times, what happens on the street happens on its own. And the top end of the market follows its own rules before eventually appropriating some of the street’s better ideas.
But these days, at both, the top and the bottom ends of the market, there are two distinct but similar sandwich booms occurring. And at both levels, there is an element of the ridiculous tagged on to each boom.
The boom at street level is easy to see. It is most visible in Western India. It was there, after all, that the hamburger bun, the pao and a strange hybrid between the two, became the basis for many new sandwiches.
The vada-pav is what a hamburger would have tasted like if it had been born and brought up in Parel by vegetarian parents. The dabeli is a slightly different riff on the same idea from Gujarat. And there is the famous (if under-recognised outside of the city of its birth) Bombay Sandwich, which has travelled abroad to turn up on menus as far away as London and America, but is hard to find in say, Hyderabad.
The boom has now spread beyond its original home. Three elements have combined to form the basis of new street food snacks and quick lunches at thelewallah joints all over India: eggs, cheese and basic white bread.
If you travel through Himachal for instance, you will find guys making omelette sandwiches with shop-bought bread. You will find variations on this theme in such cities as Surat, where the Bhai Bhai Omelette centre is something of a tourist magnet. When they want to tart the sandwiches up, they use grated Amul cheese.
This has always been easy in Gujarat, home of Amul, but improved cold chains have meant that refrigerated blocks of Amul cheese have reached all over India. So the mixture of processed cheese and bread has become a staple of the mass market.
And then there is the boom at the top end. For a long time, Indians stuck with the British tradition of making sandwiches with untoasted bread and filling them with such ingredients as ham or chicken or cheese, chutney or tomato-cucumber for vegetarians. These are the sandwiches you will still find at clubs and less elevated establishments. Restaurants with a little more gumption will put the sandwiches under a grill and will call them Grilled Sandwiches. (Rarely though will you find a great Grilled Cheese Sandwich made the American way.)
But something happened to the sandwich market during the pandemic. Actually, a lot happened to the entire food market during the lockdown and not all of it was good. One area of concern (for me) was bread. All over the world, everyone starting baking bread. A particular favourite was sourdough.
I’ve written about this before so I won’t belabour the point but the point of sourdough is that it relies on a starter culture which includes bacteria. (Ordinary bread just needs yeast.) This culture has taken on mythic proportions in bread lore. Some bakers use a starter that is decades old. This is important because it is the culture that gives the bread its distinctive taste.
The most famous sourdough bread in Europe is made by the French bakery, Poilane, and has a note of acid running through the flavour. In San Francisco, the city’s famous sourdough can be even sharper tasting and more acidic
Unfortunately most of the people who turned to baking sourdough here during the lockdown had no culture (no, I don’t mean it that way) so they relied on nasty industrial powders that were said to contain some bacteria and did not bother to ferment the dough for long enough. So something like 90% of the sour dough I tried during the lockdown was rubbish and tasted nothing like the real thing.
But just as a bogus sourdough trend took hold, so did a delivery sandwich wave. It’s complicated to take away or deliver a sandwich. A British-style sandwich will last, but any sandwich that contains lots of sauce or mayo will turn into a soggy mess sooner rather than later. The same is true of delivery hamburgers. The fast-food chains know this and reinforce their breads so that the burgers last longer. But everyone else does not.
And the more expensive delivery places during the lockdown claimed to be better than Subway or McDonald’s. So they used fancy breads and made much of their sauces. This sounded good but in 20 minutes time, their sandwiches were mush.
Nevertheless the idea of the so-called gourmet sandwich caught on and has survived beyond the pandemic. Last week, I got an exasperated text from the editor of Brunch. “Mumbai has a whole category of cloud-kitchens and restaurants delivering overpriced artisanal faux-gourmet sandwiches. I am sick of seeing “sour dough” everywhere. And stupid microgreens .”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
The gentrification of the sandwich as a means of squeezing more money out of gullible customers irritates me as much as it annoys my editor. I was lucky during the lockdown to have found two local places that made good sandwiches that held their shape while being delivered.Sadly, I was not very impressed by anything else I tried in Delhi. (You want to know what the two places are? Okay. Tres for its prawn sandwich. Plats for Cubanos. And if you include burgers, then Aku’s).
But even as the great gourmet sandwich swindle rages, there is another category of sandwich that has finally reached India. I had an excellent pastrami sandwich in Goa during the lockdown (made by Pablo Miranda, who has stopped making them now, alas) and wondered why the Jewish Deli sandwich tradition had not properly hit India yet.
If you have travelled to America, then you will know what I am talking about. The word delicatessen derives from the German word for places that sold cold meat (what the French call charcuterie) and when Jews emigrated from Germany and the rest of Europe to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they brought the German cold meat tradition with them.
Once they got to the States, they created their own Jewish-American tradition making such cold meats as pastrami (made from beef, Jews don’t eat pork) and baking rye bread, traditionally made in their old countries by mixing cheaper rye flour with more expensive wheat flour.
That led to the creation of Deli sandwiches usually made with rye bread and such meats as pastrami. These were huge overstuffed sandwiches and it was impossible to eat them without making a mess.
But God, were they delicious!
The deli sandwich has spread all over the world but its advent in India has been hampered by the problems with beef. Fortunately Hussain Shahzad, the chef behind Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, has figured out how to make good pastrami from buffalo meat. He serves it at Veronica’s, the new restaurant from the Bombay Canteen partners.
I tried many of the sandwiches at Veronica’s and found that some had Indian flavours. The Big Floyd (named after the group’s late founder) is a fried chicken sandwich with imli and Bhavnagari chillis and the Chilli Cheese Toast gets an added zing from hot Naga chilli honey.
It’s not fancy food. Some of the filling will fall on your shirt and there will be a ring of sauce around your mouth after you bite into a sandwich.
But that’s what sandwiches should be about. They should be about fun, about grabbing them with both hands and about the sheer joy of messy eating.
So yes, you can keep your faux sourdough and your microgreens. I would rather bite into a Bombay Sandwich and let the chutney run down my chin or see if I can fit a bite of a whole pastrami sandwich into my mouth.
From HT Brunch, April 22, 2023
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