Who doesn’t love a sandwich? They come in all shapes and sizes, and with all manner of fillings. They’re the staple of British lunchtimes and probably the main reason most of us can’t bear the thought of a low carb diet. I know our family life would be hindered by the absence of sandwiches. It’s the go to response for ‘but mum I’m really hungry now!’ and let’s be honest here, the ‘I really can’t be arsed cooking right now’ moments. Believe me, it’s as common to chefs as all busy humans.
Shop bought sandwiches can be the most disappointing of all, especially the ones bought in shops attached to petrol stations (they win a special prize for making something actually taste of nothing at all, I mean, just how do they do that anyway?). Then there was the rise of the gourmet sandwich with Philpotts taking an early lead in the ‘just how high can we push this price tag’ category.
But when it comes to vegan sandwiches, things do seem to be a bit lacklustre where UK butties are concerned. The reliance on cheese and eggs is huge. When either are the basis for a butty, it’s a winner with most people, such are their crowd-pleasing virtues. You’ll get no argument from me there. But what about if I want something else? Subway have something called a veggie patty on their menu, for which they have the gall to charge a higher price for than their fish or meat sandwiches (because squashing vegetables into a rectangle apparently costs more than catching or raising an animal for food). Before I started travelling, I thought my favourite vegan sandwich was humus salad. Someone starting adding cold falafel, which I’m not sure was an improvement. And it was all still a bit bland.
You can rely on the world of street food to provide the best sandwiches of all. I think the Vietnamese Banh Mi is at the top of the winners list, having inspired numerous UK traders menus (including my own with some gochujang tofu and roasted mushroom pate). Jostling for position alongside would probably be the Cuban sandwich (and all those pulled pork roll traders that inspired).
Sandwiches always remind me of travelling. Whether it’s in a packed lunch or picnic, bought on the hop from a passing shop or best of all, when it’s from a street food trader. I think my favourite sandwich of all time was the one I sampled in Ko Pha Ngan in the early nineties, which taught me that a tofu based sandwich filling could be amazing. We went back every day for more and it’s what inspired the Banh Mi Buddha on The Hungry Gecko menu.
There’s so much amazing street food in India, it has a tendency to make sandwiches look rather boring. But the melting pot of Mumbai, with its Persian cafes and Portuguese rolls served with spicy mashed vegetables, was also the place we had our first proper Indian sandwich. Delicious and beautiful, the Mumbai Vegetable sandwich is quite a Scooby snack. Such an unassuming name I think (like it’s trying to make us think it’s not a salad sandwich when it is). Totally packed with flavour and naturally vegan. There’s a definite appeal for us Northerners too, with it’s carb on carb construction. As a website once joked, there’s never enough carbs in a meal for a Mancunian!
Traditionally it’s filled with potato or sometimes beetroot, and nearly always made with white bread. I like both, on brown bread. The bits you shouldn’t mess with are the coriander chutney and chat masala spice. Both are essential. Indian sellers like to slather on the butter, perhaps to demonstrate some decadence but more likely to stop the chutney making the bread go soggy. Just head to Nariman Point at lunchtime and you’ll see the busy sandwich-walas making sandwiches fresh to order and feeding hundreds of office workers. I prefer mine toasted, a little less than the somewhat blackened Mumbai versions, and with extra fresh tomato rather than ketchup. Either way, it’s all a delicious combination. And it makes a nice change from humus!
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