The Mighty Sandwich: Deconstructing Bombay's Favourite Toastie

Ankiet Gulabani deconstructs that most beloved of Mumbai streetfoods, the Bombay Sandwich. He holds the city's best sandwichwala's to scrutiny, dissecting the secrets of their culinary flair, and finally, reconstructs the mighty sandwich at home.

The Bombay Sandwich has been around longer than I have. An unassuming tea-time staple in our house, the all-veg chutney sandwich was made so often that it would get snubbed. A rather large steel dabba of chutney was replenished every few weeks for when guests came unannounced, and either out of habit or lack of imagination, three times out of five, they were served a Bombay sandwich. On the eve of any birthday party, my mum and aunts would sit in the corner of the living room, cleanly slicing the crusts off the bread, slathering each slice generously first with butter, then coriander chutney. Like a well-oiled machine, each sandwich would slide down the human chain where thinly sliced vegetables – usually tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers – would be placed on top, then closed with another slice. Stacks of these were made and stashed away in the Wibbs or Bimbo Bread packets. As thankless kids with no appreciation for our veggies, we’d grapple with the slippery centres of the sandwich and feel quite smug when the tomatoes and cucumbers would fall out, leaving behind just chutney and potatoes.

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If you were to go out to have a Bombay sandwich, the most popular names would have to be institutions like Right Place or makeshift sandwich stalls like Jay Sandwich. The latter, within walking distance of my house, has been selling sandwiches since the late eighties, and my Bua’s (father’s sister) torrid love affair with her now-husband started here. One Gujarati and the other Sindhi, each customise it differently – one beet, no onion, less chutney, smeared with butter, side of ketchup, while the other orders the complete opposite.

The sandwich combinations that come out of a street-side Mumbai sandwichwala can put many panini-pressin’ highfalutin sandwich shops to shame. They’ve incorporated everything from sautéed vegetables, mushrooms and mayonnaise to pesto and even Kurkure in their sandwich shops, but the classic Bombay sandwich and toast sandwich still reigns supreme.

I went sandwich-hopping over the last week across the more popular sandwich shops in Mumbai to taste the plain version, the Bombay toast sandwich and other versions made in a sandwich grill.

The Bread
None of that fancy multigrain/wholewheat stuff here. Only very fresh plain white bread will do, and the cheap store-bought variety is the one you’re looking for. The best breads are the ones that are easily available – it ought to be Wibbs, Bimbo, Gold Star, or more recently, Britannia’s Vitarich. The bigger sandwich breads are a good option if you’re making the sandwich in a panini press, but otherwise, choose smaller, regular-sized bread. Needless to say, the crusts stay on if you’re toasting the sandwich, but must come off if you’re making it plain.

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Butter and Chutney
Salted butter is widely used by most establishments, and liberally too. Each slice is buttered and chutney-ed generously, and part of the secret lies here because both butter and chutney press to-gether to form a layer of flavour on both sides of the sandwich. Most sandwichwalas will also finish with a smear of butter on top. As for the chutney, it must be a fiery one that can stand up to almost two inches worth of stacked veggies. Generally, a coriander-mint-green chilli chutney is what’s found in most Bombay sandwiches; some chutneys have a bit more tang and less heat, but the perfect chutney should be a good mix of both.

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Vegetables
This bit is crucial because it forms the body of the sandwich. It’s not the choice of veggies that makes or breaks a Bombay sandwich, it’s the way they are cut and piled. Sliced boiled potatoes form the base of the sandwich, which is followed by very thin, hand-cut slices of cucumber and tomato. Thin slices ensures that no one vegetable overpowers the other and there’s uniform taste in every bite. The similarity ends here. An increasing number of sandwich shops like Sandwizza (previously Swastik) in Santacruz, Right Place in Breach Candy, and even the one-man wonder out-side PJ Club, Pali Hill now add onions, beet and capsicum to their Bombay sandwich. A roadside sandwich shop named Lucky in Vile Parle East mashes boiled potatoes with salt, pepper and chopped coriander, similar to how we make tikkis, then builds from there. All these additions are welcome, as they show the versatility of this sandwich, and even add heft.

Seasonings and Other Toppings
Repeat after me: Double Seasoning. The first time you season is after you’re done slicing out a thick layer of potatoes, the second is before you close the sandwich. It’s important to season twice because you’re building layers of flavour as you go. While the recipe for a sandwichwala’s masala, much like his chutney, is a heavily guarded secret, I’ve taken it apart to make an equally flavourful spice blend of my own with a heavy hand on the black salt. If you’d rather buy ready masala, Sandwizza retails a chatpata sandwich mix, or you can opt for a brand like Everest instead. In the absence of chaat masala, you can season with just salt and pepper too.

Ketchup and extra chutney are usually served on the side, or squeezed out on top. I’ve also tried quite a few sandwiches finished with crunchy sev, which adds yet another interesting textural element to the sandwich. Strangely, in Dadar East, a nondescript sandwich shop on Dr Ambedkar Road finishes his plain sandwich with seasoned slaw. Finally, the Right Place’s grilled veg sandwich, a blueprint for most grilled sandwiches that followed, is a double decker made with thick sandwich bread and two layers of cheese in addition to all the veggies, which in my opinion makes it incredibly indulgent.  

The Apparatus
In the late eighties and nineties, at the peak of the Bombay sandwich’s popularity, the ladies of my house were obsessed with nailing Jay sandwich’s spicy chutney at home, and some did come close, but now I realise the Bombay Sandwich isn’t so much about the chutney – it’s in the little things.

When many sandwich shop owners traded in their well seasoned toast iron for an industrial sandwich grill, the Bombay toast sandwich changed. From modest three-ingredient toast to a towering grilled sandwich with cheese, the popular sandwichwalas took to the panini press with an aim to stack more veggies and bread slices per sandwich. The crisp sealed edges of the Bombay toastie was left behind, but personally I prefer it over the grill.  The way a sandwich iron compacts all the heat and the juices from the vegetables in a tight crusty pie-like package is frankly, genius.  Apart from the toastie iron, there are a few sandwich shops in Andheri, close to Mithibai College that use a large rectangular iron to cook their grilled sandwiches.

The recipe below will make about 4 regular Bombay toast sandwiches. If you’d like them plain, remember to trim the bread’s crusts and proceed as usual.

Chutney
The spicy chutney I make for the sandwiches uses up the sliced crusts from the bread, so there’s less waste. This way is better because adding nuts to the chutney causes it to discolour quickly. Makes 1 cup of chutney.

3/4 cup fresh coriander
1 packed cup fresh mint
5 green chillies, the small, spicy variety
2 corner slices of bread, or the same amount of crusts
1 lime juiced
3/4 tsp salt, or to taste

METHOD
In a mixer grinder, blitz all the above ingredients together with 2 tbsp of water, adding as much as 1/4 cup, or till you reach a good thick spreadable consistency.

Chaat Masala
I’ve used already powdered masalas for this mix because this it’s quick to make and you can never have enough of this stuff lying around. Mix it into chaas or buttermilk when you’re not sprinkling it over fruit. Makes about 1/3 cup.

3 tbsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp black pepper powder
1/2 tbsp red chilli powder, not very hot
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp rock salt
1 tsp dried ginger or sonth

METHOD
Give all the above dry powders a good spin in the mixer grinder to blend together and bottle it immediately.

For The Sandwiches
8 slices white bread, very fresh
50g butter
Sandwich chutney (recipe above)
2-3 potatoes
2 tomatoes, sliced into thin rounds
1-2 cucumbers, sliced into thin rounds
1 large onion, sliced into thin rounds
1 beet
Homemade chaat masala (recipe above)

METHOD
Wash the potatoes and pressure cook them with their peels on in till they are well-cooked. Wash the beet and pressure cook it separately till it is cooked too. Rinse the beet under cold water and the skin will slip off. For the potatoes, place them in the freezer for a few minutes till it firms up and it’s easy to peel their skin off.
Keep four slices of stacked bread together on a clean surface and using a sharp knife, trim the corners of the bread. Skip this step if you’re making toast sandwiches. Repeat with the next four slices.
Generously butter each of the eight slices of bread, and spread the green chutney on top of each. On four out of the eight slices, slice the potatoes into thin rounds and place on top. It’s okay if they’re not perfect rounds, but they should be thin. Season the potatoes.
Stack up the thin slices of cucumbers and tomatoes above the potatoes, followed by a slice of onion and finally, a thin large slice of beet. Season the sandwich again and close it with another butter and chutney slice. Slice once vertically and twice horizontally to yield six square pieces of the plain Bombay sandwich, or alternately, heat a jaffle iron over medium-high heat.
Unlatch the iron and add about 1/2 tsp butter to grease the corners, turning it once to ensure that both sides are well-greased. Unlatch again and place the sandwich on the surface of the hot iron and latch it shut. Cook both sides for 2 minutes each, checking for an even golden-brown colour. Repeat with the rest of the sandwiches.
Smear some more butter on top of the freshly-toasted sandwiches and serve with extra chutney.

Words and photographs by Ankiet Gulabani. Ankiet is a freelance food writer and micro-blogger whose work has appeared on BBC GoodFood Magazine, Forbes India, Mumbai Mirror and Eat Post. You can follow him here.

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