These days you can make a sandwich out of anything. When McDonald’s came to India and discovered that a burger made of beef would not work, it tried to make a similar burger from mutton. But, that didn’t work either.

Only later did McDonald’s discover that it did not have to stick so closely to the original American formula. India already had Mumbai’s answer to the burger, the Vada Pav. And in later years, the fast food companies found success with a chana tikki burger and other more Indian items.

For some reason, we have always associated sandwiches (not just burgers) with certain kinds of fillings. A cheese sandwich is a classic. So is a ham and cheese sandwich — pork and cheese are the secret behind many of the world’s great sandwiches, including the Cubano and the Portuguese classic Francesinha.

Beef turns up in many forms. Frankfurters for hot dogs can be made from beef (or pork or a mixture of beef and pork), a Corned Beef sandwich is a classic; roast beef and steak sandwiches are global favourites and it is claimed that the very first sandwich ever was made by putting thin slices of beef between bread to sustain the Earl of Sandwich while he played cards.

The cold prawn sandwich at Delhi’s Tres uses a house-made brioche bread and is filled with juicy prawns
The cold prawn sandwich at Delhi’s Tres uses a house-made brioche bread and is filled with juicy prawns

Chicken is popular too. In India, we make sandwiches with slices of roasted or boiled chicken but elsewhere in the world, they prefer to make a chicken salad with mayonnaise as a sandwich filling. And of course, all over India, chicken has been forced to take the place of beef because of dietary restrictions. So a ‘hamburger’ is likely to be made from a breaded chicken patty and even hot dog sausages may be chicken.

It is now fashionable, in these health conscious times, to make sandwiches from trendy vegetables. But popular Indian vegetable sandwiches do not owe their existence to health factors though many, like chutney and cucumber or tomato and cucumber, are healthy enough. But the Bombay sandwich, often made with potatoes, is not the healthiest sandwich in the world while currently, Indian vegetarians are fixated on the avocado, the fattiest fruit in the world.

In most of the world, sandwiches can be class designators. A hot dog is very rarely an upmarket dish but the hamburger has become an expensive steak-house staple. A chicken salad sandwich or an egg salad sandwich are both inexpensive. So is a ham and cheese sandwich because the processed cheese is an industrial commodity and the ham is ‘sandwich ham’, artificially put together by fusing together leftover bits of ham. A roast beef sandwich, on the other hand, can be expensive while corned beef is cheaper.

Class is important to the fish sandwich. From the early years of the twentieth century, the tuna sandwich has been a classic American working class staple. It was usually made from cheap canned tuna and bottled mayonnaise in factory-made white bread. For years and years, it was the only fish sandwich anyone knew.

McDonald's Filet-O-Fish is a fast moving item
McDonald's Filet-O-Fish is a fast moving item

Then in the early 1960s, McDonald’s discovered that in Catholic neighbourhoods in the US, there were days (or weeks) when meat was forbidden. Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, who has the distinction of creating the greatest fast food company of all time without ever having invented a single successful product, came up with a grilled pineapple sandwich.

Naturally, it bombed and McDonald’s did what it has always done — it looked to its franchisees for successful products. One of them was already selling a fish sandwich. Because it was a fast moving item, it was made from any cheap fish, readily available in the market. It became famous all over the world in later years as the Filet-O-Fish sandwich.

At the other end of the scale is the expensive smoked fish sandwich. Until flabby, artificially coloured, farmed salmon flooded the market, smoked salmon was regarded as a luxury product. So, a smoked salmon sandwich was considered a sign of sophistication.

In areas where fish were plentiful, local cooks found ways of putting them into sandwiches. In New Orleans, they put fried oysters into an Oysterloaf sandwich. Then the Oysterloaf mated with the Po Boy, another kind of French Bread sandwich, filled with all kinds of fish and meat, to create the Oyster Po Boy, now the most famous New Orleans sandwich.

A ham & cheese sandwich is inexpensive as it uses ‘sandwich ham’, put together by fusing leftover ham
A ham & cheese sandwich is inexpensive as it uses ‘sandwich ham’, put together by fusing leftover ham

On the North East coast of the US, while lobsters used to be plentiful and cheap, once upon a time, the lobster roll became popular. There was nothing to the sandwich. If you had fresh, sweet lobster then all you had to do was combine it with butter, mayonnaise and a few condiments and put it on a roll (say, a hot dog roll). There was no original recipe and the point of the sandwich was to bring out the flavour of the lobster.

The lobster roll soon spread all over the world and as lobster grew in price, it replaced the smoked salmon sandwich as the ultimate luxury fish sandwich.

Then, in the early years of this century, it got a new lease of life when a Russian opened the first Burger & Lobster in London. The conceit was that you paid the same price for a lobster as you did for a burger. And one of its specialities was the Lobster Roll.

The lobster roll became popular on the North East coast of the US, when lobsters were plentiful and cheap
The lobster roll became popular on the North East coast of the US, when lobsters were plentiful and cheap

Burger & Lobster has now gone international and though I have been to the original London outlet, and enjoyed the burger (lifted from the menu at Goodman; the steakhouse chain owned by the same people) I have not tried the lobster. However, my son who is addicted to lobster rolls swears by it.

He is in good company. During the pandemic a lobster roll craze has swept across America and prices are at an all-time high as the dish has gone truly upmarket.

My own favourite is a humbler version of the lobster roll, a cold prawn sandwich from Tres in Delhi. It does not use a hot dog roll but uses a thick house-made brioche bread and is filled with juicy prawns, (poached in butter) mayo and the chef Jatin Mallick’s own seasonings and condiments, including coriander. I used to order Jatin’s burgers, but I am now addicted to his Prawn Rolls.

My wife, who is not particularly keen on sandwiches or on sea-food, has also crossed over to my side and it is now our favourite sandwich. The good thing is that it is only a little bit more expensive than the burger or the chicken sandwich (which I guess is tactical pricing because the food cost must be higher), so it is luxury without the full expense.

In our house, that’s the perfect upmarket sandwich. But the all-time favourite is chosen by my wife:  vada pav, the ultimate Mumbai sandwich, which I, who grew up in Mumbai, do not particularly like. But my wife swears by it.

So there are upmarket sandwiches and downmarket sandwiches. But all that really matters is which sandwich you like. A vada pav is one tenth the cost of a lobster roll.  But that doesn’t make the lobster roll better!

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, July 4, 2021