Gourmet Sandwich Recipes Take on an International Flavor

Today's definition of  a sandwich is broadening, as new waves of immigrants bring their cuisines-including their gourmet sandwich recipes-along with them. Florida District Court of Appeals judge and Tampa-area historian E.J. Salcines tells a story of how Cuban immigrants who came to this country to work in the cigar factories, years ago, brought with them the "mixed sandwich," a filling and inexpensive midday meal that could be consumed during their short lunch breaks. According to Salcines, this sandwich typically included sugar-cured ham, marinated roast pork, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese, pickles, and butter on a baguette-like roll. Over the years, this creation became known as the "Cuban sandwich," or simply "Cubano."

In 21st century America, so many types of sandwiches are available that the Institute for Culinary Education, in New York City, even offers a course called "Sandwiches from All Over." Aiming to "train your hands, heart and mind in the craft of international sandwich making," the class covers not only the Cubano, but the Vietnamese "banh mi," the Mexican "torta," and the Trinidadian "roti," among many others. And the Food Network television program Sara's Secrets recently aired an episode called "International Sandwiches," which also featured the Cubano and the torta.

A study by Technomic, a Chicago-food research firm, shows that sandwiches are one of the fastest growing sectors in the food service industry, and the trade publication Nation's Restaurant News has also taken notice of this trend. The June issue of NRN's "Culinary Currents" newsletter singles out banh mi and tortas, in particular, as sandwiches destined for wider popularity.

Banh mi is essentially a byproduct of the French colonial era in Vietnam. This "submarine sandwich with an exotic twist," as NRN puts it, features Vietnamese fillings, such as barbecued pork or lemongrass chicken, with a smear of pâté on a French baguette. The French had a hand in the Mexican torta, as well, introducing their way of making bread to Mexico in the 19th century. The Mexican bolillo, often used to make tortas, has a similar crusty outside layer and a soft inside. Like banh mi, the torta may contain any of several different styles of meats, along with condiments such as refried beans, avocado, or sour cream. And like the Cubano, the torta is often grilled in a sandwich press.

As examples of the banh mi's popularity, NRN cites the success of the Lee's Sandwiches chain in California, while the torta is served at restaurants such as Rosa Mexicano, with locations in New York and Washington, D.C. And in Atlanta, the Pangaea sandwich shop has sections of its menu devoted to both tortas and banh mi. Adding fuel to the theory, a recent article in the "Arizona Republic" mentions that banh mi, Cubanos, and tortas are all readily available in the Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale areas.

To get the word on the street, I talked to Simon Chan, who, under the moniker "Low End Theory" (taken from an album from A Tribe Called Quest), runs a web log devoted to cheap eats in the Los Angeles area. Chan says he doesn't consider himself to be a food expert, but that he started his site simply because he likes eating out and wanted to share the knowledge of some of his favorite restaurants with others. "I've tried to make the website informative and easy to use," says Chan, "hence the organization by neighborhood and cuisine." And fitting with the low-end theme, Chan's site lists dozens of places to find tortas, banh mi, and other ethnic delights.

"By their cheap and portable nature, sandwiches can crystallize the most essential and delicious flavors from a given cuisine," Chan says. "As a traditionalist, I appreciate the way sandwich recipes have become canonical; everyone knows what to expect in a Cubano! Then again, I also like the cultural mixing that goes into a sandwich like a banh mi."

Though California is known for setting dining trends, Chan disputes the sentiment that international sandwiches have reached the mainstream. "In the generally forgettable Westwood neighborhood around UCLA, there is a surprisingly good banh mi shop," he says, "but for the most part my favorite sandwiches haven't entered the popular consciousness in Los Angeles."

Instead, Chan hunts for taco trucks and small ethnic shops "in the communities where they are most popular." As for what to look for, he says, "A sandwich must be made fresh, from the classical ingredients. Otherwise, it's like any food; whatever makes your heart sing is the right sandwich."

To aid you in your search for the "right sandwich," here is a guide to some of the more popular international and regional sandwiches.

Arepa-A disc-shaped corn cake that is split like a hamburger bun, then filled with chicken and avocado, cheese, shredded beef, eggs, or other ingredients. Arepas originated in Venezuela and are often served toasted on a griddle, similar to a grilled cheese sandwich.

Banh Mi-A Vietnamese sandwich made with a French baguette, any number of meats (such as coldcuts, meatballs or barbecued pork, chicken, or beef), pickled vegetables (such as carrots, daikon, or onion), cucumbers, and cilantro. An authentic banh mi is served with a smear of pâté, although some restaurants are getting away from this custom. Condiments such as soy sauce or mayonnaise are often used.

Cubano-A typical Cuban sandwich consists of ham and roast pork marinated in mojo sauce (garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, and citrus juice), dill pickles, and Swiss cheese on Cuban bread. Other ingredients often used include salami, mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce, and/or tomato. Today's Cubano is usually buttered and toasted in a sandwich press. A medianoche ("midnight") sandwich is similar, except it is served on a smaller, sweeter egg bread.

Falafel-Served throughout the Middle East, falafel is a fried ball or patty of spiced chickpeas, often served as a sandwich in pita bread. A falafel sandwich often includes lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, as well as a tahini or yogurt-based sauce.

Gyro-A Greek sandwich, usually made from minced beef or lamb. The meat is formed into a cylindrical shape around a spit and roasted vertically. The meat is sliced off as the spit turns and is then wrapped in a pita bread along with such fillings as lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, and a yogurt-based tzatziki sauce.

Muffuletta-A sandwich from New Orleans, named after a type of round Sicilian bread. The loaf of bread is split and filled with a marinated olive salad, ham, salami, and provolone cheese. The olive salad is what makes the muffuletta unique, and may contain such ingredients as celery, pimentos, garlic, cocktail onions, and capers.

Panino-Taken from an Italian word meaning "small bread," the panino can be made using various types of breads and rolls, for example, the ciabatta, which has a soft middle and a thin, crisp crust. The filling typically consists of deli meats such as prosciutto, salami, and mortadella, cheese, tomatoes and/or other vegetables.

Po' Boy-A traditional submarine-like sandwich from Louisiana, served on a baguette. The most common fillings are fried shrimp, oysters, or catfish. Meats like ham, turkey, or roast beef are other popular choices.

Roti-A cross-cultural creation that mixes East Indian and West Indian influences, as Indian laborers brought their ways of cooking with them to Trinidad. The roti consists of curried meats, potatoes, or vegetables wrapped in an Indian flatbread.

Shawarma-A Middle Eastern dish similar to the Greek gyro and typically made from lamb or chicken. The meat can be flavored with vinegar and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg. It is often served in pita bread with vegetables that may include onion, tomato, lettuce, pickled turnips, and cucumber, and topped with hummus, tahini, or hot sauce.

Torta-A Mexican sandwich served on a roll, such as a crusty bolillo or a softer telera. Common fillings include carne asada (marinated steak), carnitas (fried pork), and al pastor (marinated pork). Garnishes such as mayonnaise, avocado, lettuce, jalapeño, tomato, and cheese are included in many versions of the sandwich, which is often served grilled in a sandwich press or on a griddle. The pambaso is a variation on the torta, filled with potatoes and chorizo sausage and slathered in red chili sauce before being heated until crisp.

Vada Pav-Another Indian sandwich. A vada is a ball of spiced mashed potatoes that is coated with batter and then deep fried. The finished vada is then served on a roll called a pav, which looks like a hamburger bun, and can be topped with various chutneys.

While most of these sandwiches might not be served at your local Subway anytime soon, if you do a bit of exploring, the odds are you can find at least a few of them not too far from your neighborhood.

Article provided by Homesteader.

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