A multi-layered love affair with sandwiches
Thursday was grilled cheese sandwich day. A good excuse to dive into India’s most iconic versions, from spicy fry-ups to Bombay toast
The Indian take on sandwiches defies definition. At times, it is a filling and greasy fry-up. At others, it’s a reinterpretation of a native recipe in a handy bite-sized package.
Although bread and buns were introduced to India by her colonial rulers, the Portuguese and the British, they have been inextricably blended into the country’s colourful culinary landscape.
While the meaning of the word ‘sandwich’ has got extended over the years — from college courses to confinement in restricted spacing — its etymology actually refers to two slices of bread with a filling in between. The name can be traced back to John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718–92) in Kent, United Kingdom, who apparently preferred to eat food in this form, so that he could continue gambling without a break. Whether it would be more accurate to credit his cook for creating the sandwich is another matter…
The desi version has yet another quiet foreign ally: the South American-origin potato, first cultivated by the Portuguese along the India’s west coast and introduced by the British to Kolkata in the 18th century as the root crop alu. The Portuguese, who call the potato batata, are also credited with introducing the ‘pao’ or bun to India.
Sliced and packaged bread, which has a more recent history, premiered in Missouri, United States, in 1928. In its earlier version, uncut loaves used to be sold by bakery staff on bicycles. In northern India and among Hindi/Urdu-speaking communities down south, bread is called ‘double roti’, in reference perhaps to the two sides of the slices that make up a sandwich.
These are some of the sandwiches that are as Indian as they come.
The desi burger: Vada pav
As the name suggests, this native vegetarian hamburger has two key components — the first is the vada, a patty made of boiled, mashed potato, which is dipped in gram flour batter and deep-fried. The second is the small pavbun that is cut open on one side and slathered with chilli (both red and green) sauce.
An integral part of Maharashtrian street food that has travelled all over the country, the vada pav originally began being sold as a snack in the 1960s for commuters outside the Dadar railway station in Mumbai. A 2015 documentary featuring Vada-Pav Inc, on its creator Ashok Vaidya and his heirs who have continued his business, underlined the iconic status of this snack.
Deliciously greasy: Bread-omelette
Few train journeys in India are complete without the sonorous announcement of ‘bread-aambleey’ being sold by Railway pantrymen through the compartments. Omelettes are often a cheap way to add protein in the diet. Pumped up with finely chopped onions, green chillies, coriander leaves and spiced with a pinch of turmeric and salt, the Indian omelette sandwich, with its two slices of bread that have been toasted to soak up the eggy oil in the same pan, is a greasy delight, especially when paired with tomato ketchup.
Whether you have it on a train or off it, make sure your bread-omelette sandwich is piping hot, and the eggs are cooked through.
Just add green: Chutney sandwich
Indian moms have found the chutney sandwich to be an easy way to get their kids to eat their vegetables. The chutney is made by grinding generous amounts of coriander and mint leaves, with a thickening base ingredient. While vegetarian masterchef and food writer Tarla Dalal recommends blending slices of bread along with coriander leaves, spinach, green chillies, and lemon juice to get a thick sauce, other bloggers recommend whizzing up boiled chickpeas in the mixer for the same effect.
There will no doubt be Southern Indian cooks who would prefer to add coconut and tamarind pulp to the chutney. No matter how it’s made, the chutney enhances the taste of any vegetable that you add to the sandwich.
Masala magic: Grilled peas-potato
This is a great way to recreate the Masala Dosa in a sandwich. The stuffing is made with boiled and mashed potatoes and peas that have been sautéed with onions and green chillies. Seasoned with Amchur (raw mango powder), ginger-garlic paste, cumin and salt, the tangy stuffing can be used in other dishes too. To assemble the sandwich, spread a teaspoon of butter and coriander chutney on the slices. Pat down the stuffing on one slice and prepare the sandwich. Dry-roast (on tawa or a tabletop electric grill) before serving.
Buttery goodness: Bun maska
This is comfort food that has endured possibly due to its very simple recipe, featuring a freshly-baked bun sandwich with a middle layer of butter and fresh cream, and a minimal amount of sugar. Known in Maharashtra as bun maska(maska means butter in Urdu), it is best savoured with slow-brewed milky tea. Cafeterias run by Zoroastrian Irani immigrants in the 19th century have made bun maska an indelible part of the restaurant scene in Mumbai, Pune, and of late, in Hyderabad.
You can catch a close relative of the bun maska in Madurai, where the name changes to butter bun, and it gets a light toasting on an iron griddle before being served.