Westerners are relatively basic folk. When it comes down to it, our needs are often uncomplicated and straightforward. We are easy to please – we like bread, and we like to put stuff between that bread. The humble sandwich – the culinary comfort blanket we cling to and seek out wherever we are.
This is why, when we’re on holiday, possibly with a bit of travel fatigue, we see westerners of all walks of life zoning in, in airports and bustling town centres, drawn to the famous golden arches as if they were honing beacons. The security of sandwiches, a haven of hamburgers, monuments to meat between bread. This is why travellers flock to McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway – a safe promise of what we know and love.
There is a perception that, particularly in Asia, it can be difficult to source a decent sandwich away from overtly western-style restaurants and franchises. However, it need not be like this.
For those of you who want to avoid these corporate giants and try to sample the local culinary offerings, yet can’t quite resist the call of the sandwich, we have a list for you. Here’s a rundown of some local alternatives that still allow travellers to get their bread fix.
The banh mi is one of the few happy products of Vietnam’s colonial past. The sandwich comes in a vast array of varieties with one common base – the French baguette. The crusty baguette is filled with your choice of ingredients, with fresh coriander, pickles, and chillies sprinkled on top to give the sandwich that Vietnamese twist.
Anthony Bourdain was a big fan of the sandwich, marvelling at the miracle of the baguette alone, questioning how it could be so crispy and crunchy while retaining its freshness.
The most common variety is the cold cuts banh mi, or ‘bahn mi thit’, which has ham and liver pate as its base, and is topped with the standard pickled carrots and cucumbers. Chillies are added to add to your taste.
Another variation is the ‘Banh mi cha ca’, with the same toppings upon fried fishcakes with scallions and perhaps a little soy sauce.
Across the country, you can find many variations of the sandwich. They’re usually big, wrapped in paper and kept together with an elastic band, and all that sandwich comes at a cheap price – generally setting travellers back no more than 2 USD.
The roti john is a sensational Singaporean sandwich – a classic street food dish to be found as a staple in the city’s hawker centres.
Whereas the banh mi is crunchy, the roti john starts off as a soft French loaf sliced lengthwise. It’s then filled with a delicious concoction of beaten eggs, minced meat, and onions, and then topped with a variety of other spices and vegetables. Essentially, it’s an omelette baguette. The whole glorious creation is then fried top-down until the topping sets and becomes crispy, yet the inner sandwich retains a doughy gooeyness.
The roti john served at street food stalls is then drizzled with a sweet chilli sauce to complement all that savoury eggy goodness. It is usually served cut up into bite-sized pieces.
The roti john’s foundations are a mystery, but it is believed that it was explicitly designed with western tastes in mind. This myth, real or otherwise, stems from the concept that ‘John’ used to be a slang term referring to Caucasian males.
The rou jia mou is affectionately titled the Chinese hamburger – a great bit of marketing to entice westerners to the dish. The name rou jia mou literally means ‘meat in a bun’ anyway, and to be fair, just one look at the thing is enough to draw you in!
It’s a Chinese bun baked in the northern style and cut in half – filled with braised pork belly chopped together with coriander and spring onion.
It originated in the northern province of Shaanxi but is consumed with ever-growing popularity all over China, and is often associated with the country’s Muslim population. In Muslim districts, like the popular tourist area in Xi’an, the filling will be minced beef instead of pork belly.
Either way, the rou jia mou is a humble snack that packs a delicious punch and seems to be slowly working its way into more fashionable menus in western Europe. Pick one up from street stalls in Xi’an, Beijing, or Nanjing for no more than 2 USD.
Staying in China, the jian bing is a deliciously decadent breakfast wrap that can be picked up from street food stalls on a morning.
More of a fried pancake than a sandwich, it consists of a cracked egg on top of a crepe sprinkled with crispy fried crackers, scallions, and spring onion.
Jian bing vendors usually have a unique set-up to make the breakfast wrap right in front of you. A flat edgeless cooking plate sits atop a stove to produce even heat. This provides the cooking surface on which the batter is poured, spread into a circle with a wooden scraper.
The egg is cracked onto the pancake as it is cooked to set within the pancake, topped with scallions and spring onion. The crispy fried wontons and hoisin sauce provide the unique twists for westerners as the whole wrap is folded into an an envelope packed with flavour.
Many vendors will offer the chance to add a bit of fresh lettuce into the wrap or even add some grilled meat. These are only served in the morning in China and form the delicious pick-me-up so many commuters need as they board their subway to work.
Kayu toast is a kind of toasted sandwich – a popular breakfast across Singapore and Malaysia, commonly served alongside boiled or fried eggs and hot coffee or milk.
The ‘kayu’ refers to the sugary sweet filling within the toast – a tasty Malaysian jam made with coconut, eggs and caramel, along with the fragrant aroma of pandan leaf. It makes for a great breakfast for those with a sweet tooth and is perfectly accompanied by strong, aromatic Malaysian coffee.
In terms of the origins of the dish, it is commonly attributed to the popularity of toast with jam on board the English ships of the region. This was then taken on by the locals with the twist of incorporating local kayu instead of British jams.
Why is this important? At Discova, our guides know that sometimes travellers get homesick and just want some comfort food. When speaking to our local expert in China, George, he admitted that in fact he had back-up options for food choices should any traveller just want something familiar.
This is understandable. Yet, it’s in our DNA to encourage travellers to try new things and get a taste of the local cuisine. That’s why our helpful guides are always on-hand to offer advice and suggest things that may satisfy our travellers. Hankering for a sandwich? Well, you can go to Subway, but why not try a Roti John…
Why not indeed!
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