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Go on make a toastie!

Does anybody remember the original toasties?

They were made with a contraption that looked like a cross between a sandsi (as we called it in Gujarati: like kitchen pliers), which we used to pick up hot bartans and a little steel pouch. The pouch was at the end of the pliers and opened up.

 

You oiled the inside of the pouch and put a slice of bread (in those days, usually Britannia or something similar) on one side and then topped it with a filling. You finished the sandwich with a second slice of bread, shut the steel pouch and held it, with the long, plier-like part of the toastie-maker over a gas flame.

 

   You turned it around so that both sides were cooked evenly but there was no fixed timing for how long each sandwich would take. I used to judge it by the little crusts of bread, which never quite fit into the pouch and stayed outside, touching the flame directly. When they got black and burnt, I knew that the toastie was ready.

 

   The toastie-maker was, as the description suggests, a low-tech home implement. It only received a boost when the Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai put toasties on the menu. The toasties were still there, the last time I went to the Taj, several years ago. Under the reign of chef Hemant Oberoi, in the early part of this century, they added some new fillings to the toasties including a delicious keema ghotala (a Mumbai street dish of keema with scrambled egg).

 

   Hemant had the right idea because in my house (and I suspect in most other people’s houses too), the toastie-maker was usually used to turn left-overs into sandwiches. And keema was perfect for this kind of sandwich. You could just put last night’s keema into the device or you could, as I did, add chopped raw onion (I used to eat keema at dinner with bread and kachcha pyaaz so this was a logical extension of that principle) or, if the keema had not been very good at dinner, then I would zing it up with a dollop of achar. (All badly-made keema improves with a little achar and possibly, some dahi.)

 

   It didn’t have to be keema, of course. In my house, we made toasties with all kinds of leftover sabzis. I have had a cabbage sabzi toastie and a gobi sabzi toastie. I drew the line at an aloo toastie myself but I am sure a masala dosa-type potato filling would have worked well for starch-on-starch fans.

 

   The toastie was – at least in my house – the first taste of a new phenomenon: the hot sandwich. We ate sort-of-hot sandwiches when we went out: grilled sandwiches were very popular in those days at Mumbai restaurants. But the filling was nearly always cold. For a leftover toastie however, the filling (gobi, keema or whatever) always had to be a little warm and by the time the toastie-maker was removed from the flame the bread was hot too.

 

   Till that point, we had been used to cold sandwiches. We would cut cucumbers into thin slices, slather the bread with a green (kothmir) chutney and make cool cucumber and chutney sandwiches. At restaurants you would get cold chicken sandwiches. (These were hard to make at home because you needed roast or poached chicken, not the kind of thing we had readily available.)

 

   And we had toasted sandwiches, which rarely worked well with the commercial bread of that era which broke and cracked when you toasted it. (We had a much better way of getting the best out of commercial/industrial toasted bread. We would butter it when it was hot so that the butter melted. Then we would smear some pickle masala-oil on the toast. Try it. It is delicious.)

 

   Besides, the classic flat sandwich was useless when it came to Indian fillings like keema or sabzi. For that you needed a paunchy little fellow that could accommodate the sabzi till it bulged in the centre.

 

   You could however, make Western-style toasties and we did. The most common was the classic sandwich combination of ham and cheese. The beauty of this sandwich, which most of us still remember fondly, was that it transcended its (mostly third-rate) ingredients to become a dish of beauty.

 

   Ham and cheese is a combination that you will find all over the world. It is at the heart of a French Croque Monsieur. A Cubano sandwich is basically a ham and cheese sandwich with a little salsa dancing thrown in.

 

"Take processed cheese and sliced sandwich ham and put them between two slices of any commercial bread. Add a condiment of your choice and make your toastie."

   In the heyday of the toastie, most sandwiches were made from industrial bread. (And frankly, the bread at five-star hotels was not much better.) We had local cheese in India, from Mumbai’s own Aarey Milk Colony and from such places as Kalimpong and Ooty, but none of those cheeses was suitable for toastie making.  Until Amul started making cheese slices, most of us relied on gray market supplies of Kraft slices or took normal Amul and grated it. Most (if not all) processed cheese is fairly revolting if you eat it on its own but it undergoes a magical transformation when you combine it with any meat and let it warmly melt. (Think of the cheeseburger and how all fast food chains use cheese to add flavour to their tasteless burger patties.)

 

   Then there were the ham choices. The public’s idea of ham is of a piece of pig (say the back), which is cured and then cut into thin slices to be sold as ham. This is true of a lot of ham but sadly the majority of ham is not made this way.

 

   While we may love eating slices of ham (is there a better ham in the world than Jamón Ibérico?) most ham goes into institutional kitchens and is used in catering. So, quality is rarely a priority. A lot of ham is so-called ‘sandwich ham’ or ‘pressed ham’.

 

   Pressed ham is the luncheon meat of the ham world, which is to say that it is made by taking leftover bits of ham from more expensive cuts and pressing them together to form a block. When you cut pressed ham into cubes for cooking, it works well and adds a ham flavour to the dish. And if you slice it for a sandwich, you can probably get away with passing it off as the real thing. (Remember this the next time you see something described as “sandwich ham”: they are not offering little suggestions about what you can do with the ham. They are just trying to avoid having to tell you it is the Spam of hams, made by pressing bits of pork together.)

 

   But here’s the thing. Take processed cheese and sliced (or cubed) sandwich ham and put them between two slices of any commercial bread. Add a condiment of your choice (ketchup, English mustard etc.) and make your toastie.

 

   It will be delicious.

 

   How do I know?

 

   Well, because I just made one while researching this article and am eating it as I write!

 

   I don’t use an old-fashioned toastie-maker any longer, though. My wife has bought one of those fancy sandwich machines where you put the sandwich on a griddle, shut the top, flick a switch and wait for the machine to cook your sandwich.

 

   It is not as wonderful as it is cracked out to be especially if you want to make plump little keema sandwiches and pack your bread with leftover gobi sabzi but it gets the job done. (My wife disagrees. She says the machine is fine. I am just too stupid to know how to use it properly.) I used gluten-free bread from Sprinng Bread, which is good for sandwich-making, some pressed ham cut into little cubes and lots of grated basic-quality cheddar. (I am sorry but I didn’t have any processed cheese in the house.) Every ingredient was bought in Delhi and home-delivered during this lockdown.

 

   The cheese melted into the bread and the ham rendered its flavour throughout the warm sandwich. It was totally delicious.

 

   What else can you make with the new kind of fancy sandwich-maker? Quite a lot, actually. It just won’t be as filling as an old-fashioned toastie. I’ve smashed up a cooked burger patty (from Artisan meats) and made a burger-keema sandwich. My wife has made a real keema sandwich from leftover keema. She makes sandwiches with Spanish chorizo and fancy cheese. And I am now experimenting with cooked Goan chourico as a filling. (The chourico is home-made by Crescentia Fernandes who I have written about before.)

 

   So go on. Make a sandwich. Make it fat! Make it warm and crumbly!

 

   It’s fun. It’s easy. It’s delicious.

 

 

Posted On: 22 Aug 2020 11:49 AM
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