Walk through any city in the world and you will surely notice people enjoying some variation of the sandwich.
While the basic structure remains intact, the types of filling and bread have been adapted to every country’s specific tastes, resulting in a mind-blowing variety of cultural influence on this simple dish.
The sandwich famously took its name from John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, before quickly spreading from England across the globe. It traveled to large parts of Asia, Africa, and South America, where it was introduced and transformed at every stop.
Imagine an eighteenth-century Briton working with the East India Company in Calcutta – he needs to eat lunch but is not yet familiar with the local cuisine. He makes a sandwich and happily eats it, relishing in the familiar taste and portability.
An Indian man watches from across the dock, thinking, What an ingenious way to use leftover cooked vegetables or some of my freshly minced coriander chutney.
He goes home and makes a sandwich of tomato and cucumber slices between bread and marvels at the familiar taste wrapped up in a revolutionary concept. He feels that he now has something in common with the British, but he’s also anxious to make it his own.
It’s the fine balance of something new with something old that makes a recipe tick. To me, sandwiches are the perfect global dish, bringing people together and inspiring cultural blending in delicious new ways.
Sandwiches have played a big part in my life.
Growing up in Mumbai, my breakfast/snack was always a cup of piping hot tea with a jam or cheese sandwich. Birthday celebrations were unthinkable without the quintessential chutney sandwich, made with two slices of white bread (traditional Indian breads like chapatti or roti are more of a lunch thing) spread generously with slightly salted butter and layered with freshly made coriander/cilantro chutney.
Dainty cucumber sandwiches are always a refreshing treat, but an omelette sandwich (stuffed with onions and green chiles) is a heartier option to keep you going during the workday. We Indians are what I call “cafeteria-vegetarian” – we pick and choose what is vegetarian based on convenience, and fortunately eggs often make the cut.
On any busy street in Mumbai, near offices, colleges, schools, and bazaars, you will always find a “sandwich-wala.” They set up a small cart or movable stand with a portable gas stove, filled with all the paraphernalia needed to make vegetarian sandwiches.
This sandwich is a layered one, with salted butter, spicy coriander chutney, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, and red onions, topped with a dash of flavorful sandwich masala.
For variety, you can also request it toasted, add generous quantities of grated cheese, or slather it with some ketchup. The sandwich-wala then cuts the sandwich into nine squares, making it an easy-to-eat, healthy, and filling snack that’s easy on the wallet.
Sandwiches Around the World
When I moved to the UK, I got to experience sandwiches in an entirely new way.
As I stepped off the plane at Heathrow Airport, I noticed rows of transparent mini-fridges stocked with gleaming, symmetrical triangles of plastic-wrapped sandwiches – BLT, ham and cheese, even a chicken tikka sandwich! Famished from subsisting on airplane food, I rushed to buy a three-cheese sandwich.
The bread slices were larger and a little more grainy than what I was used to, and I was surprised to feel the refreshing crunch of lettuce (nice, crispy lettuce can’t hold up to the heat and humidity in India). But despite the small differences, the comfort of a familiar food in a foreign land was enough to make up for a 10-hour flight.
This was the beginning of my worldwide travels, where the familiarity and diversity of the humble sandwich served to connect me to every new culture I visited.
I moved further west to Los Angeles, the hub of migration, where I tried Cuba’s toasted panini, tortas from Mexico, and the Vietnamese bánh mì. Bánh mì was an especially delicious discovery – a French-inspired Vietnamese baguette filled with thinly julienned carrots and pork, topped with a dainty sprig of cilantro.
Any Way You Slice It
What’s on the outside of a sandwich can be just as important as what’s inside.
Bread has a rich history in Europe, giving us the baguette from France, the pão from Portugal, various dense loaves from the United Kingdom, and many kinds of brots (breads) from Germany.
As Europeans colonized the world, they missed their breads and taught the recipes to the locals. Thus, the Vietnamese learned to make perfect baguettes, the Goans in India (who were colonized by the Portuguese) make perfect pãos, and the rest of India learned to make British white loaves.
The people in these countries made these breads to perfection, but they added their own local ingredients in between. What went between those two slices of bread was specific to the local population’s palate and regional food supply.
While we Indians certainly warmed to the British introduction of the sandwich, we made it our own by adding local flavor through masala or cilantro chutney. In Mumbai, we took the culinary fusion a step further and made a vada pão, filled with a deep-fried and spiced potato.
The Earl of Sandwich truly left his footprints across the globe.
Community and Adaptability
There is something amazing about the simple act of putting food between two slices of bread. It is truly one of the most traveled and adapted concepts in the world.
For anything or anyone to really thrive, they must adapt to their locale and be flexible, but also add a little bit of their individuality and personal flair to the mix. The sandwich has surely done that – it has adapted to whatever country it went to and ingrained itself discreetly into the society.
While never demanding attention or pretending to be grander than it is, the sandwich became an indispensable aspect of so many cultures by being confident of its worth but flexible enough to accommodate new ideas.
As the world becomes more connected, we have more opportunities to share with and borrow from people all over the globe. Whenever I try new things, I like to remember this lesson from the sandwich: embrace and adapt, but always add your own twist.
No chutney is ever the same – the ingredients can be adjusted based on preference and availability. So feel free to modify this recipe to make it your own!
- 1 bunch coriander/cilantro
- A handful of mint
- A thumb-sized chunk of peeled ginger root
- 1/4 onion
- 1 clove of garlic
- Freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice (start with ½ Tbsp)
- Roasted cumin seeds (delicious but optional)
Cut everything into small bits and blend. Add 1-2 Tbsp of water for a thinner consistency.