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The Japanese sando sums up the ethos of Japan

Anyone who has spent some time eating in Japan will tell you about the greatness of Japanese food.

For most of us — and for foodies certainly — the cuisine of Japan is characterised by great chefs who pay special attention to their ingredients and make, say, exquisite sashimi from lightly aged fish or perfect rice pellets for nigiri sushi, or slice the finest wagyu with each piece delicately marbled with little veins of fat before it is cooked so that the melted fat moistens the meat.

 

All this is accurate. It explains why Japan has one of the world’s greatest cuisines and how Japanese restaurants have helped redefine gourmet food the world over in the last few decades.

 

   But there is another side to Japanese food: one that can be just as delicious despite costing say, less than 5 percent of what a meal at a great Kaiseki restaurant would cost.

 

   Japan is the only country I know of where you can go to a convenience store (rather like a neighbourhood grocer’s shop in India), pick up a packed sandwich and have the meal of your life. The sandwich will have been mass produced, probably in an assembly-line environment. The ingredients will be inexpensive: industrially produced mayonnaise for instance. And there will be white bread baked in massive batches.

 

   But no matter what filling you choose, the sandwich will be amazingly tasty.

 

   How do the Japanese manage this? Well, it seems to me to capture the essential paradox at the centre of modern Japan. It is a society that values artisanal skills and works to preserve them. Food is just one example. A chef can spend five years learning how to make rice before being allowed to cook it for a top restaurant.

 

   But Japan is also an industrial giant, a global leader in electronics, automobiles etc. Nearly everywhere in the world, you will find Japanese cars, TVs, computers and the like.

 

   I always think that the convenience store sandwich (or sando, as they call it) is just another example of the complex and often seemingly contradictory nature of Japan. Good food is available to everyone, whether it is artisanal in origin or industrial. Because the Japanese are masters of both: artisanal skills and industrial production.

 

   Each time I have gone to Japan, I have tried to figure out why, once you have queued up to pay for your convenience store sando, have taken it out of its cellophane wrapping and taken your first bite you will have what is —there is no other word for it — a gourmet experience.

 

   The answer, I think, has to do with the Japanese understanding of ingredients. My favourite Japanese sando is the egg sandwich. This is made with milk bread, a white bread that is made slightly differently from Western white bread. It is an industrial product — it only became popular in the 20th Century — and it is not even entirely Japanese in origin. It uses tangzhong, a flour and water paste that is traditionally used in China to make bao.

 

   Japanese milk bread also uses lots of milk, butter, yeast, and a little sugar and some eggs. There is no ancient Japanese white bread tradition — they were all rice eaters — and the country only began eating bread (let alone sandwiches) after its defeat in the Second World War when America began exporting wheat to Japan.

 

   The other secret to the Japanese egg sando is another non-traditional ingredient: mayonnaise. When foreigners think of Japanese food, we think of delicately fermented soya sauces or of such flavours as ponzu and yuzu. This is fair enough: these flavours turn up again and again in Japanese dishes.

 

"Ever since the Japanese sando passed into legend thanks to such food critics and TV personalities as Anthony Bourdain, America has gone crazy for sandos."

   But what we miss is how much the Japanese love mayonnaise. They eat it in such quantities that even the French (who dip their French Fries in mayo, not in Ketchup) are taken aback.

 

   As with the milk bread, it is like a Western mayo, except that it is not. And like the bread, it is a 20th Century phenomenon. Unlike the bread however it is closely associated with a single company: Kewpie’s, whose name has become a generic term for Japanese mayo.

 

   Kewpie’s started selling its mayo (which, till then, was not a particularly well-known sauce in Japan) only in 1925. Its founder went to America, liked the taste of mayo and decided to make his own version. Classically, mayo is made with oil, eggs and a little vinegar (except in India where eggless mayo is the rage) but unlike the French, who prefer it freshly made, Americans treat it like Ketchup, as a bottled condiment. Hellmann’s (easily available in India now) is the archetypal American mayo.

 

   Kewpie’s decided to improve on the American version. While all mayo uses whole eggs, Kewpie's used more egg yolk to make it richer. And instead of vinegar, it used cider, which added a little sweetness. It also used what was then a peculiarly Japanese ingredient: monosodium glutamate (MSG) better known to us in India by the name of the company that invented it: ajinomoto.

 

   American chefs who say that Kewpie is their favourite mayo and substitute it for their domestic (or even, freshly-made) mayo don’t focus too much on the MSG but one of the things that makes Kewpie different is the umami edge it gets from the MSG. (In America, MSG is still a dirty word after all that racist nonsense about ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ in the 1970s.)

 

   The eggs are important too. In Japan they use good quality eggs though I doubt if they all come from free range chickens: the sando often does not cost enough to justify the expense.

 

   So, with crushed boiled eggs, their own milk bread and Kewpie’s mayo, the Japanese have created a classic sandwich that lasts long enough to be transported to convenience stores all around, that can lie on the shelves till somebody picks it up and still tastes like heaven.

 

   For me, that sums up the ethos that made Japan bounce back after the humiliating defeat in the World War and the nuclear attacks. They took Western ideas — sandwiches, bread, mayo — and made them their own even though they had no previous experience in the area and no tradition.

 

   Ever since the Japanese sando passed into legend thanks to such food critics and TV personalities as Anthony Bourdain, America has gone crazy for sandos. After all, Bourdain called the egg sando “insanely delicious and incongruously addictive” and American foodies seem to agree.

 

   The rest of the world has been slower to catch on: the fancy European sandwich chains steer clear of milk bread and of course of too much mayo. In most of the world, the best sandwich is usually some version of the grilled cheese and ham sandwich.

 

   I was like that too but ever since I went to Japan again about a year ago, I have become nearly as much of a sando addict as Bourdain. I love a good pork Katsu sando but my favourite remains the egg sando. Who would have thought that a cellophane-wrapped industrial egg sandwich on white bread would fascinate me so much? But then, there is only so much artisanal sourdough one can eat!

 

   You can’t really get a good Egg Sando at most places in India. The new pastry shop/Deli at the Oberoi is about the only place I know of that does a good version in Delhi. Chef Manish who looks after the Delhi Oberoi’s food told me that they make Japanese-style milk bread every day specially for that one sandwich. I doubt if others will take so much trouble.

 

   We got one of Manish’s Japanese loaves, some Kewpie mayo (which I buy anyway in Bangkok on a fairly regular basis), some free range eggs and my wife made the sando at home. (She made little tweaks to the standard recipe which she is not keen to reveal, alas). It was so delicious that I had the egg and mayo mixture on toast as well, in total contravention of Japanese tradition.

 

   But then, given what the Japanese have done to our curry, I guess we have a right to tinker with their sandos too!

 

  

Posted On: 15 Mar 2024 12:20 PM
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