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Shawarma, toast or sandwich? What do you call it?

Everything that lies in between two carbs is desirable and popular. Sandwiches come in all shapes, and flavours and each culture boasts a type. Chefs and 'sandwichers' both are happily experimenting with the next-level sandwiches. We get to the bottom of the slice of bread, baguette, torta, et al. One of the latest restaurant trends for 2022 includes global sandwiches, and we’d not want you to miss on that.

Quiz question, what are the three main components of the simple, unassuming, and convenient sandwich? The bread, the spread, and the filling. Now, that was easy, wasn’t it? We’ve all spread the peanut butter and jam on bread or added extra cheese between two slices.

Of course, a sandwich can be prepared with a blend of just about any batch of ingredients lying at home from a jar of pineapple marmalade to leftover grilled meat bites, fresh lettuce to a block of cheese, ketchup to a can of black beans, and beyond. In ordinary delis and fancy eateries, the sandwiches get re-defined with truffle, provolone, lemongrass, et al. In short, it’s hard to imagine a world without sandwiches.

And, if you’ve been in the region long enough, then you’ve grabbed a bite of the Regag, one of the most well-known breads in Emirati culture. “It is made of three simple ingredients and is served with toppings such as cheese, eggs, or honey. I believe it became popular for its simplicity,” said Nabil El Kourdy, senior marketing manager, Feels Juice Bar & Kitchen, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yes, we’ve been eating sandwiches for as long as we can remember. In Dubai, a multicultural city, we have variations from the local favourite shawarmas to artisanal bread rolls.

What do you call it?

A sub, shawarma, a bánh mì, a torta or toast? Irrespective of the christening, none of us can get enough of the sandwich. Also, we wear its existence like a cultural badge on the sleeve, reach out to it when in a hurry, and are particular about how it is prepared. It’s almost outrageous how the humble sandwich is grabbing larger spaces on the menus, tell experts. Before we reach out to grab one, let’s rewind a bit.

So, how, and when was the sandwich born?

Sandwiches have been around for a long time, the first dates to 18th century England, when John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, asked to be served some slices of roast beef between two slices of bread, and thus the sandwich was born.

“In Mexico, tortas i.e. the Mexican sandwiches were first documented in 1864 in a newspaper and are said to be the result of people needing something tasty, easy to transport, nutritious and economical. Either from Mexico City or the city of Puebla, they were created by the availability of a simple salty bread that served as a wrapper for any other food type or leftovers. Quintessential street food and a complement to our beloved pre-Hispanic tacos; tortas are one of the greatest inventions,” said Mercedes Torres Lagarde, manager and partner, Copala, DIFC.

The evolution of the sandwich

You’d think it’s the bread that holds everything together, i.e. if you’re still biting on to the oh-so-old sandwich for now the latest avatars of the handheld meal staple have evolved and we are happily eating the closed and the open-faced kind too. “The sandwich was invented with the objective of being easy to eat. With time people started getting creative with the convenience, which triggered the development of new recipes and flavours. Then came in the role of culture and each culture wanted to create their own take on convenient eating through different sandwiches,” added Nabil.

In Dubai, we have many chefs remixing the classic adding a personal touch. Sandwiches are so open to interpretation and can be modified to cater to different cuisines and taste buds. There are so many elements to work with, the bread, the protein, the toppings and the sauces or condiments. My favourite from what we serve is the Bao Cubano, replacing the bread for an Asian bao bun, a fusion of Latin American cuisine with Asian inspiration.

Juan Pablo, group executive chef, Hotel Cartagena, JW Marriott Hotel, Dubai

The window to multi-cultures and flavours

"A sandwich is 100% a reflection of our culture. There are many examples where sandwiches can reflect culture, it’s all specific to the individual ingredients and elements used, like the bread and the seasoning. For example, in Latin cuisine, it’s all about the bread used, for tacos we have soft tortillas or hard shells, and then comes the filling," said Juan. “Tortas are stuffed with anything/ everything people have available, which in turn depends on geography, culture, and habits. For instance, the Tecolota responds to the need of being able to eat chilaquiles (traditional breakfast in Mexico) on the go. Why not put it all inside a bolillo bread, grab and go? The same applies to the Pambazo which allows people with little time to pack an entire lunch between two slices of “soaked” bread. Why restrain oneself to a plain sandwich when one can pack a real satiating powerhouse available at will?” remarked Adan Naranjo, head chef and partner, Copala.

I believe that sandwiches reflect a big part of a culture’s history. Continuing with the Regag. In the past, Dubai had limited access to resources hence the simplicity of making Regag and its flexibility of adding topping is what made it popular. It offered people convenience and gave them room for creativity with flavours.

Nabil El Kourdy, Senior Marketing Manager, Feels Juice Bar & Kitchen

Now, we are aware of how important bread is to the French culture, and how the average Frenchman in the late 1700s was reported to eat three pounds of bread a day! French baguettes are quite popular with everyone, with simple baguette sandwiches sold in boulangeries, food stands, and cafés throughout France, and even in Dubai. It’s interesting to note how the Vietnamese took the baguette and transformed it into something distinctly Vietnamese. So, what is bánh mì? “In Vietnam, bánh mì is eaten at breakfast and reflects Vietnamese culinary tradition, the fillings vary but are always distinctly Vietnamese with crisp fresh vegetables, aromatic herbs and often, perfectly seasoned protein,” said Lily Hoa Nguyen, founder and executive Chef, Vietnamese Foodies, Dubai. At Vietnamese Foodies, all of these are made on light and airy 24-hour proofed bread.

Bánh mì’s origin dates to the mid-19th century and the introduction of the French baguette to Vietnam. We’re known for being quite industrious so by the 1950s, Vietnamese people transformed the baguette into a savoury baguette sandwich filled with distinctly Vietnamese fillings. Unlike the baguette, however, bánh mì baguettes are made with both wheat and rice flour, making them very light and airy with a thin crust.

Lily Hoa Nguyen, Founder & Executive Chef, Vietnamese Foodies

Another example of the French connection is the Choripan at Cartagena, two slices of toasted French baguette (added to the Argentinean culture by the French immigration after the Second World War) with grilled chorizo criollo and the emblematic chimichurri sauce.

Sandwich consumption globally is on the rise, and it’s also been touted as one of the trendiest food items to get your hands on, we’d not want you to miss on that, so we’re leaving you with a menu of must-try sandwiches.

In the UAE, locals love their melted cheese toasties, Indians have their own buns stuffed with potato, Arabs the delicious and ubiquitous shawarmas (although the pita bread if flat), even hamburgers are minced meat sandwiches in a bun, Japanese (and locals) love their wagyu sandos, and now we’ve brought the tortas from Mexico to the list.

Mercedes Torres Lagarde, manager and partner, Copala, DIFC

Must-try standout sandwiches

>> Bao Cubano, with pulled lamb and beef mix, pickle cucumber dijon mustard and Japanese mayo; Dh65, Hotel Cartagena, JW Marriott Hotel
>> Carne Asada, with braised beef, guacamole, black beans, asadero, abd chilli morita salsa; Dh40, Hotel Cartagena, JW Marriott Hotel
>> De Puebla Taco, with crispy chicken, salsa verde, daikon radish; Dh30, Hotel Cartagena, JW Marriott Hotel
>> Grilled Chicken & Cheese, with free-range chicken, organic cheese and a special sauce; Dh49, Feels Juice Bar & Kitchen
>> Tuna Spicy Sandwich with tuna, vegan mayo, kale pesto, avocado and organic cheese; Dh48, Feels Juice Bar & Kitchen
>> Steak & Cheese, with glazed tenderloin beef, mixed veggie slaw, mushrooms and organic cheese on white/multigrain bread; Dh59, Feels Juice Bar & Kitchen
>> Lemongrass Grilled Chicken Bánh Mì, with crisp fresh and pickled vegetables, herbs, homemade mayonnaise and Vietnamese peanut sauce; starts at Dh27 (six-inch), Dh38 (12-inch), Vietnamese Foodies
>> Lemongrass Grilled Beef Tenderloin Bánh Mì with crisp fresh and pickled vegetables, herbs, homemade mayonnaise and Vietnamese pepper sauce; starts at Dh27 (6-inch), Dh38 (12-inch), Vietnamese Foodies
>> Crispy Breaded Cream Dory Fish Bánh Mì with crisp fresh and pickled vegetables, herbs, homemade mayonnaise, and Vietnamese pesto sauce; starts at Dh27 (6-inch), Dh38 (12-inch), Vietnamese Foodies
>> Pambazo, with pambazo bread dipped and fried in a red guajillo pepper sauce, traditionally filled with chorizo (marinated minced meat) and potatoes, cream, cheese, lettuce and avocado; Dh79-99, Copala
>> Tecolota, with bolillo bread, chilaquiles (crispy tortilla chips in red or green salsa), pulled chicken or beef, cheese, cream, sunny-side-up eggs, coriander and onion; Dh79- 99, Copala
>> Cemita, with traditional cemita bun sprinkled with sesame seeds and stuffed with breaded chicken breast, Oaxaca string cheese, avocado, black refired beans, chipotle chili and papalo; Dh79-99, Copala

This piece was first published in Khaleej Times; visuals: supplied & Khaleej Times Multimedia Desk


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