How the British sandwich became a uniquely Indian meal
- A favourite Indian ‘comfort food’ is the humble sandwich, an aristocratic English invention, which they have made their own with the addition of traditional Indian fillings
- India’s go-to snack is a delicious East-meets-West combination of ingenuity and tradition loved by everyone from busy parents to cash-strapped students
Forget samosas and bhajis, Indians love their sandwiches and gravitate daily to their favourite street corner stalls to enjoy slices of bread with every kind of filling from paneer to pizza.
The creation of the staple snack has long been attributed to a British aristocrat. John Montagu was the fourth Earl of Sandwich in Kent, England in the 16th Century, and according to an apocryphal story, he ‘invented’ the sandwich so he could eat while continuing to play his favourite card game without a break and without the use of cutlery. Since then it has become the world’s favourite snack – a non fussy but filling meal on the go.
For centuries, Indians have had their own breads such as naan and chapatis made of wheat flour, but the Western concept of bread (and refined flour) was brought to the nation by the British and the Portuguese colonisers and is now part of the country’s culinary culture.
Sandwiches became a favourite fast food for college students and office workers and were served from small handcarts and street-side stalls. Homes started using sandwich toasters or tavas (rustic griddles) to cook them. Today, bread is an indispensable part of most Indian households where it is used more as a receptacle for stuffing – from paneer (cottage cheese) to spiced potato – and is often toasted on hot tavas or griddles. It is a convenient lunch for working people and a way for the frugal to use leftovers. Frequently the staple condiment is a green chutney, which many householders make and store in their fridges.
Mumbaikers gravitate to their favourite sandwich stalls, which can be found on every street corner and outside city colleges such as R.A. Podar or Mithibai, or in business districts like Nariman Point.
Another favourite, popular in British-style Indian clubs, is the chilli cheese toast, which is loaded with grated Desi cheese and green chillies then grilled.
Another much-loved snack eaten all over India is the chutney sandwich that comprises two slices of bread dabbed with local yellow butter, green coriander and mint chutney, and which has the crusts cut off. They are found at tea parties, in lunch boxes, on road trips and at stalls on station platforms, sometimes with slices of onion and cucumber in the mix. Another homestyle favourite is the curd sandwich incorporating hung curd, mixed with colourful vegetables, seasoning and cheese to create a sandwich spread.
“Sandwiches are really easy to make and at the same time can be stuffed with almost anything to make a nutritious meal. In fact, if I am working, my kids can even make simple sandwiches on their own with just chutney or cheese slices – unlike rotis which involve some labour and need a curry,” said Shobha Jain, a 45-year-old Delhi homemaker.
Restaurants and five-star hotels in India serve Western-style snacks such as Club sandwiches with ingredients that include pesto, grilled tofu and falafel. While upmarket stores provide well-heeled Indians with artisanal bread such as multigrain, ciabatta and sourdough. However, it’s the street style snacks and the simple homemade chutney or vegetable sandwiches that are the comfort foods for most Indians.