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The incomparable Bombay sandwich

If there is one thing people in India never tire of debating, it is whether Mumbai or Delhi is the better city. More accurately, the argument centres around which metropolis has the better food. Delhi often comes up tops with its incredible range of street eats, but Mumbai trumps any competition when it comes to the sandwich.

The sandwich may have come to India through the British, but the people of Mumbai (as Bombay is now called) have added their own fillings and spices to make it their own, reports BBC.

The Bombay sandwich (it’s never referred to by the newer name of Mumbai) has a fairly simple recipe, where boiled potatoes, along with raw vegetables like onions, cucumber, tomato and peppers, are placed between richly buttered slices of bread – always plain white, no fancy brown or multigrain – and liberally slathered with chutney. This piquant green chutney made with fresh herbs and spices kicks up the flavour profile a notch, while the cooking method – using a rustic handheld toaster (called a chimta) over an open flame – gives it a soft centre with a crunchy crust. In recent times, a generous sprinkling of grated cheese is also added to the mix.

The iconic dish reflects the city’s ethos of welcoming outsiders and embracing them into its fold. Even before the British brought the sandwich to India, it was the Portuguese who introduced both potatoes and bread to the country. They used local toddy (fermented palm sap alcohol) to ferment and bake pav, the soft and fluffy bun that is the base for Mumbai’s other famous street dish, the vada pav.

“The Bombay sandwich likely developed as food for the migrant workers who came to work in Mumbai from various parts of India,” said cookbook author Sonal Ved referring to what historians have claimed. “Back then, in the 1960s, Mumbai had a booming textile mills industry. The labourers needed cheap meal options and that’s when this sandwich originated.”

The textile mills may have closed decades ago, but the sandwich has endured, providing a cheap and convenient meal to office workers on the go and college students alike. Even today, every street corner in Mumbai has a sandwich vendor, with long lines in front of the most popular ones. These sandwichwalas do brisk business, serving up their sandwiches with thick ketchup on paper plates.

While Ved’s earlier books, Tiffin and Whose Samosa Is It Anyway? both focus on Indian food – exploring recipes and origin stories, respectively – her newest title, India Local: Classic Street Food Recipes (published in August 2023) shines a spotlight on the wide variety of street eats from across the country. In addition to the Bombay sandwich, recipes include classics like pani puri, daulat ki chaat and mutton momos (dumplings stuffed with minced mutton and mixed vegetables), as well as Ved’s own creations such as barley and couscous tikki (patties) and guacamole galauti (avocado kababs).

“Most are family recipes – things I have learnt from my mother, my sisters, aunts, Indian wedding caterers and family cooks,” said Ved. She has been collecting these recipes for a while, adding her own spin to traditional dishes. For instance, the chutney for her version of the Bombay sandwich includes blanched and pureed spinach and chickpea flour to make it more wholesome, while the chaat masala sprinkled on the vegetable stuffing provides a tangy hit. “The recipe is my own – this is how we have been making it at home for years now,” she said.

And although street food stalls and even upmarket restaurants now offer versions of the Bombay sandwich – with beetroot, avocado, imported cheeses, meat slices and even chocolate or Nutella spread – cooked in electric toasters and fancy grills, the classic dish remains hugely popular. This is for good reason; nothing comes close to this perfect balance of flavours and textures.