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The many-layered sandwich

Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

To make a bunny chow, you need a loaf of bread and a scoopful of vegetable, meat or bean curry,” writes in Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents. “Cut off the end of the bread and hollow it out, reserving the soft innards. Fill it with curry. Serve.”

The politics and eating of the bunny chow is another matter all together, and thereby hangs a tale: call it “A History of the World in Three Sandwiches”. The bunny chow, a South African cousin of the pao bhaji, was “born of segregation”, Hajratwala reminds us. “Bunny” probably came from “bania” (but I can see Maharashtrian readers wondering whether it came from the bun in bun-maska); chow was a generic term for food. Some of the fierce racial politics of South Africa had an echo in the debate over bread — white or brown.

One politician promised “white bread for a white South Africa”, at a time when the Indian population served up its bunny chows in loaves of brown bread. The brown-bread bunny chow was, like the Indians in South Africa, neither authentically Indian nor “fully assimilated from the vantage point of a white-bread culture”. A friend who lives and works in South Africa confirms that it still exists; that it is still encased in brown bread; and that it is still, as Hajratwala acknowledges elsewhere in her book, fiendishly difficult to eat, its delicious contents squirting out over the unwary nibbler’s hands.

Many years ago in New Orleans, as a street vendor handed me a perfect po’-boy sandwich, he held on to the large, filled fried shrimp sandwich (French Louisiana bread, “hot” Creole mustard) for a second and said, “Lady, you got our history in yo’ hands.” The origins of the name are disputed, with some historians maintaining that po’ boy was a corruption of “pourboire”, or the tip one gave sandwich delivery boys. This seems to be dubious, though, and the vendor held by the

In this version, the Martin brothers worked as streetcar conductors until they opened a small coffee shop in the French Market in 1922. In 1929, the streetcar conductors union went on strike — one of the most emotionally charged strikes in New Orleans history. The Martin brothers were loyal to their former profession. “We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended,” Bennie Martin recalled. “Whenever one of us saw one of them, we’d say, ‘here comes another of those poor boys.’” A letter from the Martins promises, “Our meal is free to any members of Division 194... We are with you till hell freezes.” The po’boy, then, aside from being dangerously addictive in its oyster and its roast beef versions, is a striker’s sandwich — perhaps even the world’s first solidarity sandwich.

Dissecting the origin myths of sandwiches is mined with pitfalls. The Vietnamese banh mi — a sandwich that in its Saigon form includes crunchy pork ears and/ or head cheese — plays into the country’s history of French colonisation. The soft paus you eat with a fiery Goan shrimp curry or as part of pau-bhaji are the survivors of a bitter war between the Portuguese adventurer-colonisers distaste for leavened bread, and the local Indian determination to assimilate and tame this “foreign” bread.

Consider the kathi roll, that humble confection of egg-curtained parathas wrapped around kebabs and marinated onions. All historians agree that the roll was born in Calcutta’s venerable Nizam’s Restaurant, but from here the stories diverge. The most popular story has it that created the kathi roll to please a fastidious sahib, who wanted to avoid oil stains on his fingers; Razzaq rolled up a paratha with the kababs inside and encased it in a paper wrapping.

Not so, said Abdul Razakh (no descendant of the sheikh) when I asked him about this over 10 years ago; the roll was a staple of the migrant population who used to travel between Calcutta and their villages in Bengal or Bangladesh. A customer saw the chefs preparing rolls for a bunch of Nizam’s employees on their way home for a religious festival, and suggested that the public would like this.

There you have it: two versions of the kathi roll story.

It’s either a classic example of the natives trying to please their colonial masters, or a robust example of traditional traveller/ migrant foods finding a niche in India’s newly urban landscape. Perhaps that’s what I like about local sandwiches so much — it’s like sinking your teeth into history, a little explosion of flavour and politics on the tongue.


First Published: Sat, November 21 2009. 00:18 IST