I have to say…I love Passover. I may be a horrible Jew who blogs about bagels during a holiday that restricts your leavened bread intake, and who doesn’t even post a Passover blog until after Passover, but it’s true. Whether it’s the story of Moses freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt, or the delicious meal my mom always makes, I have always loved this holiday. Now, the one thing about Passover is this food restriction. For eight days, you can’t eat all the wonderful flour products that you normally enjoy, but you can have matzo. Many people, especially non-Jews, are horrified by this flat, simple, dry cracker, and rightfully so. There is very little that is redeeming about matzo (flavor-wise, that is)…except that it can be transformed into matzo pizza.
I’ve already argued why pizza should be considered relevant for a sandwich blog, so we don’t need to talk about that. But matzo has a ton of cultural and religious significance, so let’s learn about that!
Passover is our starting point: I’m sure most people are familiar with the story of the jews being enslaved in Egypt, Moses and the burning bush, and the ten plagues. But what’s relevant for us right now is what happened after the tenth plague. Throughout the course of the plagues, the Pharaoh had tried to compromise with the demand that all Jews be set free, and had even allowed them to go, but changed his mind immediately. Therefore, after the first born son of each Egyptian family had died, and the Pharaoh freed the Jews, they set off very quickly, since this precedent had already been set. So instead of slowly packing their belongings, and taking their time to get out of Egypt, the Jews threw everything on their backs, and booked it out of there! Of course, this meant that their bread, which usually was given time to rise, ended up in their belongings they were taking with them, and were baked as they went into crackers. These crackers, named matzo, became a symbol for salvation and freedom, as well as a reminder of our enslavement.
Now here’s the interesting thing. Before the tenth plague happens, God explains to Moses and Aaron what is about to happen, and tells them that they’re going to have to replicate this ceremony every year to remember how God passed over (get it???) the Jews’ first borns. Not only that, but he also explains the rules that prohibit eating unleavened bread for Passover for eight days. Then, Moses goes and tells the Jews this, and they follow this service while the first born sons of the Egyptians are being killed. But then…they rush out of Egypt so fast that they don’t have the time to let their dough rise! Now, many young Jews are taught that we eat matzo on Passover because of the matzo that was accidentally made as we hurried out of Egypt, but actually, we were told to eat matzo for this new holiday called Passover before any of it even happened. Talk about a miracle.
Let’s fast forward a bit. I could talk about the kinds of matzo, that is, the difference between the matzo us Reform Jews eat and the serious matzo, shmurah or guarded matzo, that Orthodox Jews eat, which is made from grain that has been watched over from the time of harvest to make sure it hasn’t fermented at all, and therefore risen. I could also talk about the first matzo factory which opened in Cincinnati in 1888. I could even talk about the fact that Passover is such an important holiday, and matzo its most important symbol, that the Last Supper was actually a Passover seder that definitely featured matzo. But really, I just want to talk about matzo pizza.
Growing up, Passover presented a bit of an emotional challenge: while I loved the holiday and the food, I did not love only eating matzo. Never was I forced to keep Passover kosher and abstain from leavened foods, but I always felt like if I loved the holiday so much, I should go all the way. The only thing that allowed me to ever refrain from eating bread was matzo pizza. I’m pretty sure my brother and I made it multiple times a day, and I’m also fairly certain it was one of the first things I cooked on my own. As a person who loves New York pizza in all its thin-crust glory, making matzo pizza felt like I was beating the system. During the week of Passover, I usually ate all my sandwiches on matzo, and enjoyed it, but there was something about the pizza that really made me love Passover even more.
The pictures above are from Fresh Brothers, a southern California pizza chain. They (brilliantly, I might add) decided three years ago to make matzo pizza for all the suffering Jews of the Los Angeles area. My mom and I decided that we needed to check this out, so met one day for lunch, and let me tell you…it was awesome. Of course, nothing beats sharing a matzo pizza with your little brother right out of the oven when you’re just old enough to cook for yourself, but having a pizza shop make it, was a game changer. The veggie pizza was enough to make me wish it was always Passover. And to make me wish I had thought of it.
Alright, so I know it’s a bit weird to blog about one of Judaism’s most famous leavened breads during Passover (which, for all the non-jews out there, is a holiday where you abstain from leavened bread), but I’m not the best Jew, so this isn’t entirely out of character.
There are a few origin stories for the bagel. One, a myth that has since been debunked, tells the tale of a baker in Vienna in 1683, who created a bread shaped like a stirrup, in honor of King John III Sobieski of Poland, who prevented the Turks from taking over the city. This story even claims that the word bagel comes from the German word for stirrup, bugel. Though this story held sway for many years, we now know that it is totally false, since the Yiddish word beygl can be found in a 1610 document of rules for a Jewish community in Krakow. The rules state that bagels were to be given to women in childbirth as a gift. It’s believed that the bagel actually originated in South Germany, where it was named beugel, or bracelet. It then moved into Poland, where, some sources say, it was used as an alternative to the obwarzanek, a very similar bread, that was associated with Lent. Whether or not this is true, the bagel has quite a history in Poland. In the shtetls, hawkers sold bagels out of baskets or on long sticks, and were required to have a license. Even the illegal selling of bagels occurred, mostly by children with widowed mothers, though if they were caught, the police would often beat them and take away their goods.
However the bagel originated, with the diaspora of the Jews, it spread to Western Europe and the east coast of America, where it found a stronghold. Many Jews found employment selling bagels in their new cities. These days, the bagel is one of the more well known Jewish foods, and is intensely associated with New York. In fact, New Yorkers claim that they actually make the very best bagels, thanks to the high quality of the water. They even call their plain bagels “water bagels.” Another variety of bagels is the Montreal bagel, which is made with malt and is blanched in water with honey.
Bagels, in addition to being a famed Jew-food, also hold a lot of significance in Jewish culture. The shape of bagels symbolizes the circle of life; the loop of a bagel has no beginning and no end. Even more, they were considered to be a good luck token and it was thought they could fend off the evil eye. For this reason, it has held meaning in ceremonies that are life cycle events, like circumcisions, during childbirth (as mentioned above), and funerals. And as much of Jewish humor revolves around food, you can bet there are bagel jokes…namely “a bagel is a donut with rigor mortis.”
But really, while all of this bagel history is interesting, what is more interesting is how delicious they are. Bagels are made from an enriched dough with flour, water and yeast, though these days many people add eggs as well. The dough is then rolled out and shaped into the familiar rings, and are left to rise briefly. In order to get the fantastic crusty outside with the delightfully chewy center, the dough rings are blanched quickly in boiling water, and, after being drained, are then baked to bagel-y perfection. Of course, bagels don’t retain their freshness for very long, which is where that rigor mortis joke comes in!
But what really makes bagels so great are their ability to make delicious sandwiches. While much of bagel cuisine revolves around cream cheese and smoked salmon, the bagel is truly a versatile bread. Really, you could throw anything between a halved bagel, and chances are, it’d be awesome. Even better, is that the bagel is a very sturdy bread, so you can easily make open face sandwiches! Of the photos above, the sandwich ones are from Tompkins Square Bagels in New York City, which was around the corner from where my brother used to live, and was a place that necessitated at least two visits per trip to New York. The first open face bagel is a homemade sandwich, with lox from Zabar’s, and the second two are from The Wood in Los Angeles, a cute restaurant, and this, in my opinion, is the star of their menu.
But however you eat your bagel, (or for that matter, whether you’re a Jew or not!), bagels are definitely a part of both the sandwich and the breakfast culture of America. You can get a bagel with cream cheese at almost any grab and go breakfast place, and even many lunch places: Dunkin Donuts will put any of their sandwiches on a bagel for you. And these days, you can get just about any flavor of bagel you want, from plain to blueberry, to pumpernickel. Which really just gives you more options for your sandwiches.
As soon as I tried onigiri for the first time, I knew I had to eventually post something about it on Anatomy of a Sandwich. I had thought that, like many other posts I’ve done, I’d have to spend most of my time justifying how onigiri fit into a sandwich blog. But then I opened up a book by Shizuo Tsuji called Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. This book is widely considered to be the first translation of Japanese cuisine into Western understanding, not to mention the foremost encyclopedia on traditional Japanese foods. So needless to say, I was thrilled to find this sentence leading the description of onigiri: “Japan’s traditional sandwich equivalent.”
This means, fortunately, that instead of validating onigiri’s inclusion here, I get to talk about the fun stuff!!!
Onigiri, also called omusubi, are delicious balls of rice stuffed with vegetable, meat, or seafood fillings, then wrapped in seaweed (called nori). Though the word “onigiri” has the same root as “nigiri”, a form of sushi, rice balls actually fall into a different category of Japanese cuisine. The relation here has to do with the etymology of “nigiri”, which means “clenched” or “gripped”. If you’ve ever seen a sushi chef make nigiri, then you know what I’m talking about. Onigiri are also clenched, as the rice must be pressed hard enough to stick together, without squishing the rice grains, which makes them harden. In fact, it is said that, since cooking was traditionally done by women, the clenching of onigiri was a sign of a mother’s love gripping the rice together. Onigiri are usually triangular in shape, but can also be tubular or round.
On the other hand, there is a very big difference between nigiri and onigiri: the rice. While sushi rice is made with vinegar and sugar, onigiri rice is simply steamed. Furthermore, when making nigiri, you simply wet your hands so the rice sticks together, but not to your hands. With onigiri, wetting your hands is followed by salting your hands, so that as you press the ball together, you are also seasoning it. The reason behind this actually has to do with the original reason each dish was created. Sushi was created as a way to preserve fish: the fish was put between layers of this vinegared rice in order to preserve the fish. Alternatively, onigiri is salted because it originated as a method to preserve rice, not the filling inside. To this end, traditional fillings for onigiri are usually preserved in and of themselves, like umeboshi (pickled plum), salted salmon, and tarako (salted cod roe). Onigiri is also on the larger side, meant to be handheld, you know, like a sandwich!!! Furthermore, onigiri is often thought to be Japan’s oldest food, possibly originating before the widespread use of chopsticks, since it takes rice, a difficult food to eat with your hands, and makes it more accessible. Archaeologists have even found a lump of carbonized rice from around 300 BC that showed evidence of being held by human hands!
Today, onigiri holds a very similar place in Japanese cuisine as sandwiches do in Western cuisine. Found everywhere from onigiri shops to gas stations and convenience stores, modern technology has had a large part in making onigiri as widespread as it is. While traditionally, the emotional associations and precision needed to make onigiri made it impossible to mass produce, these days we’ve figured out how to have machines grip the rice properly, stuff the ball with filling, and package the ball with nori in a way that prevents the seaweed from going soggy. It is a truly portable meal that is eaten in the same context as sandwiches, and is considered one of the best platforms for highlighting local flavors and trends. They are also used to explore other cuisines, as now you can find the traditionally English filling of tuna mayo, or even Italian-style, with tomato sauce and cheese. In LA, we have two great onigiri spots: Sunny Blue (in Santa Monica, with a new location in Culver City) and Kawaba Rice Ball in Hollywood. Both offer a great combination of traditional and modern fillings, as you can see in the photos. And both are unbelievably delicious and reasonably priced, so are great for a snack or a full meal, which means if you pass one of these places, you have no excuse not to go!
When it comes to a cheap, quick meal, most people think of fast food. However, not only does fast food have generally little to no nutritional value, but it is also seriously lacking in culture. Now, it is easy to argue that everything has some sort of culture, but I’m talking about a meaningful history, and an idea represented through consumption that eaters want to be a part of.
The po boy, on the other hand, combines history and culture with an inexpensive sandwich option. As with many culturally important and region-specific sandwiches, there are lots of stories about how the po boy was created. Generally, though, this sandwich’s early beginnings are agreed upon. During a streetcar strike in 1929, the Martin brothers, Bennie and Clovis, both former streetcar workers, vowed to feed every man involved. They partnered with John Gendusa to create a larger, yet inexpensive sandwich. Gendusa’s bread was bigger than the usual sandwich bread, and came to define the New Orleans-style French bread. The Martins served spare bits of roast beef and gravy on this bread, and after supplying enough of them to the “poor boys” that came to eat, the name stuck to the sandwich.
Today, roast beef is still one of the most popular and common po boys, along with the fried seafood varieties, available thanks to New Orleans’s location. Po boys are served “dressed” with shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles and mayo. They are also generally the cheapest sandwich on any menu, from restaurants to delis to convenience stores. This creates and interesting situation. The po boy was born out of the need for inexpensive food, so it is almost comforting to see that it has not left this part of its identity behind in the growing foodie culture of America. On the other hand, this position does not encourage much quality control. After all, very few people will complain if the cheapest sandwich doesn’t quite live up to their expectations. To counteract this laziness and to uphold and honor the po boy’s history, some establishments take great pride in their sandwiches and make a point of it, too. Furthermore, the New Orleans Po Boy Preservation Festival was created to keep the sandwich and its place in the city’s culture alive.
Sadly, the po boy pictured in this post is not from one of the places that puts emphasis on creating an exceptional sandwich. I discovered this sandwich in a po boy joint that supposedly had the best in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, this was apparently not a neighborhood that has remarkably high food standards, instead continuing the po boy’s history as a meal for those who might otherwise be unable to afford one. I got the classic roast beef, dressed. Though the sandwich was tasty, it was good in the way that cheap food is. It was very obvious that customers frequenting this establishment were not foodies. And while the sandwich itself was not spectacular, I definitely had a po boy experience reminiscent of its early days.
Frybread is inescapable in the American Southwest. If you had to pick one food that would represent Native American culture, this would be it. Frybread is essentially a pancake of fried dough that can be served alone as a snack or made into two different types of sandwiches: a Navajo (or Indian) taco, or a meat pocket-type thing.
Frybread originated on the “Long Walk” that the Navajo were forced to make during their relocation from Arizona to New Mexico in 1864. Luckily for them, the US government was kind enough to provide them with flour, salt, sugar, and lard (yes, that was just a tad bit sarcastic). Thus, frybread was born: a food with a very contradictory identity. Though frybread is a symbol of the painful past that the Native Americans have shared, it is also a way for tribes to connect over this history. Furthermore, frybread is central to powwows (gatherings among tribes), but is also credited with many of the health issues among Native Americans today.
But how does all of this relate to sandwiches? Frybread is the base of many dishes…both as a convenient way to eat your mutton and sheep intestines (pictures #2 and #3), and in Navajo tacos (picture #1). A Navajo taco consists of frybread, ground beef, chili beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese. The first picture is a Navajo taco from Charly’s in Flagstaff, AZ. Sadly, we found out once we actually got to the Navajo reservation in Gallup, NM that we had Americanized tacos, which was disappointing, but kind of predictable. I’m sure that by this point, I don’t have to argue the fact that the Navajo taco is a sandwich, even if it is easier to eat with a fork and knife.
Fortunately for us, we have a friend living in Gallup, and so we got to experience the real Navajo culture…and real frybread. We went to the Navajo flea market, and aside from buying really cool jewelry, we ate a whole lot. The second picture is roast mutton…meat, tomatoes, lettuce, onion, all wrapped in frybread. Now, this definitely fits into the sandwich category, as you can pick it up and munch. The mutton, coincidentally, was also fantastic (I think I thanked the Navajo woman about twelve times). The third picture doesn’t appear to qualify as a sandwich, considering that there are three kinds of meat (including a rib and sheep intestines), a potato, a corn cob, all on top of frybread. A great way to eat this dish, however, is to break off a little bit of fry bread and a little bit of meat and eat with your hands. This meal was really fun because I got the boys to try the sheep intestines.
So though I didn’t really talk about sandwiches on this blog, I thought it was important to talk about a different kind of bread, especially one with such a cultural importance. Plus, everything with frybread is phenomenally delicious.
In the blossoming world of gourmet food trucks, the Nom Nom Truck is one of the most famous. After a great showing on the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, the Nom Nom Truck now has a super dedicated, almost obsessive, fan base.
What’s so interesting about the Nom Nom Truck is that they serve banh mi, which are vietnamese sandwiches. Traditionally, banh mi is made with ingredients that most Americans would cringe at: pâté and headcheese. And yet, the Nom Nom Truck has a following that defies all cultural logic. You can get a traditional banh mi from Nom Nom…it’s called “the deli special.” But the more popular options are the grilled pork (pictured), the lemongrass chicken, or the tofu. In addition to the meat, each banh mi has cilantro, jalepeños, mayo, a tangy relish of carrots and daikon radish called do chua, and, my favorite, cucumbers.
Banh mi is a great sandwich to look at in terms of culture for two reasons. First of all, banh mi originates in the French colonialism of Vietnam. The sandwich demonstrates how the co-mingling of cultures creates new, hybrid ideas. In banh mi, the French contribution can be seen in the baguette and the pâté, combined with classic Vietnamese ingredients like the daikon radish. Nn fact, food is one of the best ways to track the movement of culture: by identifying food traits unique to a culture and finding them in other places, you will often find other cultural constructs have moved as well.
Banh mi is also interesting in terms of popular culture. It seems to have become the new, hip thing in the food world, with fans of all types. The best way I can illustrate this is through an episode of The Great Food Truck Race. The trucks found themselves in a small town in the South. It seemed as though the Nom Nom Truck’s winning streak had come to an end; everyone expected the burger truck to win. The Nom Nom Truck pulled out a huge victory, even in a place where most of the people had never heard of banh mi. For whatever reason, this Vietnamese sandwich appeals to everyone. The New York Times has done an article about banh mi, and in it, lists the top ten banh mi spots in the country (coincidentally, a commenter adds Num Pang to the list). When the Nom Nom Truck shows up at a gathering of food trucks, a line forms immediately, and the other trucks lose business fast. Whether it’s the sandwich in and of itself, or the prestige of the Nom Nom Truck or both, right now, banh mi is a force to be reckoned with.
Now before I begin, I want to note that it has been quite some time since I’ve posted. Sorry.
Secondly, and much more pertinent to this post, I am not a pizza expert. On the other hand, I very much know what exactly I like and don’t like when it comes to pizza. Quite honestly, that deep-dish, thick crust stuff just doesn’t do it for me. That is why I always make sure to eat pizza as much as I can when in New York.
I hope that by now, I won’t have to argue too strongly as to why pizza fits into the sandwich category. It very much resembles an open-face sandwich and, furthermore, is most often eaten with your hands (unless of course, you are one of THOSE people who eat their pizza with a fork and knife, and probably pat off all the grease as well).
What is really interesting about pizza, in my opinion, is how many different cultures have laid claim to it. Its origins in Naples make it inherently Italian, yet America has adopted it into its food culture as well. Going further, Chicago has made the pizza its own, as has New York, and any college student could tell you that pizza is one of their most eaten foods. For me, this is the beauty of food — its universality allows all sorts of people to eat the same food while meaning very different things to each person.
For those of you who have been following along, you may remember my friend Molly from her delicious meatloaf-style burgers. On my trip back to Connecticut, Molly once again busted out her serious cooking chops and whipped up an amazing Eggs Benedict breakfast for us.
Now, even I think Eggs Benedict pushes the sandwich envelope a little bit, mostly because there is no easy way to eat this dish, and using your hands is out of the question (at least in civilized company). This issue disqualifies Eggs Benedict from the category based on lack of convenience. On the other hand, the ingredients and composition fit in perfectly with the concept of the open-face sandwich: bread on bottom, meat, condiment, plus additional fixings layered in the order of any breakfast sandwich, minus the bread on top. I think the aspects of Eggs Benedict that qualify it are more important than those that don’t, and so in my eyes (and mouth and stomach) that makes it enough of a sandwich to put it in this blog.
The more important question is, what makes Molly’s Eggs Benedict so utterly awesome? Let’s start at the bottom: instead of using the classic English muffin as a base, Molly made biscuits from scratch, which were everything a biscuit should be: fluffy, yet dense, buttery, and just plain delicious. The Canadian bacon was pretty generic, but, let’s be honest, fry anything in butter and it will be tasty. Poached eggs are tricky (also my favorite preparation of eggs), and, in my opinion, are generally overcooked. As you can see from the second photo above, Molly poached the eggs PERFECTLY and is therefore my egg hero. Top it all off with a tangy, thick, homemade hollandaise, and I dare you to tell me this breakfast wasn’t awesome.
Eggs Benedict is a classic breakfast dish, made more famous by the fact that there are so many variations available, such as Eggs Florentine, Artichoke Benedict, Smoked Salmon Benedict, and dozens others. There are a few origin stories of this delicious egg meal, all involving someone named Benedict asking for this combination of ingredients. Today, Eggs Benedict can be found on almost all breakfast menus, and back when the New York Times wrote about it in 1967, it was noted that “Eggs Benedict is conceivably the most sophisticated dish ever created in America.” Even though Eggs Benedict is often one of the most expensive breakfast items on a menu these days, I’m not sure that most people would agree with this statement any more. So while this dish is very questionably a sandwich, and has obviously moved down a few spots on the elegant foods list, it still has a history that places it solidly in American food culture.
For my birthday, my parents took me to STREET, a restaurant in Hollywood that serves street food from all over the world tapas-style. This was a perfect choice for my birthday dinner, as I consider a great meal to be one in which I get to enjoy many different foods, and not just one big entree. Furthermore, I love trying new things, especially great local foods, which are most often embodied in the form of street food.
STREET is the creation of Susan Feniger, most well known for Border Grill in Santa Monica, and keeps much of the same feel of great food in a casual California setting. Most of the seating is outside, keeping to the street concept, and there is enough variety that everyone will be happy (even the pickiest of eaters like my father). My mom had been to the restaurant before, and was adamant that the kaya toast be a part of our meal.
It was one of the first items that we were served (I think we ended up ordering most of the menu), and wasn’t what I was expecting at all. From the description (toast, coconut jam, egg, dark soy, white pepper), I was expecting more of a breakfast sandwich, but this was better than it ever could have been in breakfast form. The coconut jam, though definitely sweet, was never overpowering, and well balanced by the distinctive flavors of the soy and white pepper. The toast itself was buttery and perfectly golden, the best kind of toast, in my opinion, to dip in egg. The egg was great, and all together, this dish was totally unexpectedly delicious.
Kaya toast, which takes its name after the jam used in the dish, is very popular in its native countries of Malaysia and Singapore. Taken at face value, it may not seem like the kind of food you would find in these places, but kaya toast is actually the product of British influence. Kaya, or coconut egg jam, is a traditional food, while the toast can be attributed to the British diet that infiltrated the culture through colonialism. As the two cultures mingled, the jams and preserves that the British ate on their toast were replaced by the local kaya. Soon, kaya toast became a staple food. Today, there is even a franchise of restaurants that has become famous for its kaya toast. In fact, Ya Kun Kaya Toast‘s slogan is “The toast that binds…Kinship, Friendship, Partnership.” Not only is this reminiscent of the combination of the two distinct cultures that created kaya toast, but also highlights that food plays an important role in all cultures.
I must say that I was skeptical of the kaya toast at first, but I ate the last bite while regretfully wishing there was more on the plate and that I hadn’t had to share it in the first place. Next time I eat at STREET, and there will definitely be a next time, I will be just as adamant as my mom in my recommendation.
The wrap. A sandwich variant now considered to be just as good as a sandwich, but with less carbs. This wrap, from Blue Platein Santa Monica, was good, but nothing to write home about. The California wrap was stuffed with chicken breast, avocado, jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and buttermilk ranch. This wrap looks good on paper, but in practice was rather boring. I thought about not including this sandwich for that reason, but figured it would be a good introduction to the wrap construct.
As seen before in the last sushi post, the wrap fits legitimately into the sandwich category. Using the California wrap above as an example, it is apparent that all of the sandwich components are present: main meat, fixings such as lettuce, tomatoes, and avocados, the all-important cheese, and condiments. Put all together in a tortilla or other similar casing, the wrap takes the convenience of the sandwich to a whole new level. Wraps can be eaten on the go more easily, as often only one hand is necessary, and there is little fear of ingredients falling apart or out the bottom. Though many Americans choose the wrap for health reasons, eliminating carbs, this “convenience construct” as I will call it from now on, is a truly American value. Our culture esteems convenience and ease, resulting in the etic idea that Americans are lazy (sorry everyone). The wrap, therefore, takes the sandwich and transforms it to embody our culture’s values, while taking the concept to a new level.