… Why sliced white bread is the latest restaurant trend (yes, really)
4 September 2018
In a world where food is so fashionable, perhaps nothing can escape the hipster facelift. But even after fried chicken, dirty burgers and posh hot-dogs, the latest trend seems a little… ironic. For whose childhood lunchtimes were not littered with the words, “eat the crusts”?
Years were spent trying to persuade children not to peck around the edges of their sandwiches like birds, but if the coolest new restaurant trend is anything to go by, 2018 is the year the food world rebels against parents everywhere.
The “sando” – named after the Japanese and Australian slang for “sandwich” – is a version made with “terrible” white bread and served without crusts, and the latter is as non-negotiable as pudding before you’ve eaten your greens.
When someone uses the word “terrible” to describe one of the main ingredients of the the most Instagrammed new food trend, you know it’s going to be good. We know cheap, processed white bread is far from healthy wholemeal (this isn’t even “best of both”, after all), but sometimes nothing else will do.
“What’s not to like?” asks Brett Redman, the head chef and owner of Neptune, one of London’s coolest new seafood restaurants, while putting a sardine katsu sando (made with a sardine fillet, iceberg lettuce and “tonnes of mayo”), down in front of me.
“Great sandos ideally have no more than three ingredients, which makes them incredibly simple,” he says. “They are the opposite of MasterChef-style dishes comprising of 35 different things that require you to see a therapist for stress after you’ve cooked. They’re all about simplicity.
“But they do have their own rules: you have to use very fresh, soft, white supermarket bread that mimics the enriched white bread used traditionally in Japan. We know white bread isn’t healthy but here it works because something like sourdough has far too much flavour. Sandos are inverted sandwiches, in a way, because the point is to savour the filling and get almost no flavour from the bread.”
Katsu sandos, which have a breadcrumbed then fried filling, are the most popular, he says, and while pork is the most traditional, restaurateurs have modernised the dish by including fried chicken and fish, as well as sliced omelette, crunchy vegetable croquettes and wagyu beef.
It might seem a waste to stick an ingredient as expensive and luxurious as the latter between two slices of cheap, white bread, but some sando connoisseurs think it’s worth paying more than £20 for six tiny squares. Does that make it one of the most expensive sandwiches in the world?
Redman remains one the chefs who think wagyu beef sandos are controversial. “Crunch and texture are important,” he says. “That’s why we serve a katsu sardine sando, instead of just a sardine sando, and it’s why we use iceberg instead of something like rocket. It’s also important that it’s slathered in mayonnaise – Japanese Kewpie mayo, if you can get hold of it, but otherwise you can add a touch of Tabasco to normal mayo to jazz it up.”
Katsu sandos must also be served cold, he insists, to avoid them becoming soggy. “In Japan they are now served in cool restaurants but they were once the food of corner shops, and they couldn’t cook them to order there. Plus there’s something satisfying about cold, fried food – it’s leftover-like.”
Traditionally the crusts are cut off after the sando has been made to give the perfectly straight line between bread and filling they are famous for (and nod to the often beautiful symmetry of Japanese cooking). The effect on a white bread sandwich is that it makes it look a little like children’s party food, or a trendy version of the sandwiches served at a posh afternoon tea, but these fillings are far removed from egg and cress.
“Lemon sole, mackerel or soft shell crab would also work brilliantly,” Redman says. “You can use any fish really, as long as the fillets are quite thin.”
Meanwhile in south London, Milk, a hip brunch destination serves a “fillet o’ fish” sando with red snapper, lettuce and pickled cabbage, alongside omelettes and full English breakfasts.
They might be simpler than MasterChef dishes, but Tim Anderson, a former winner of the programme and owner of the Japanese soul-food restaurant Nanban in Brixton, is also a fan. He makes a more traditional katsu sando with crumbed pork shoulder, shredded cabbage, lots of mayonnaise and a Japanese-style sauce full of tamarind. By February this year he’d eaten so many he was “90 per cent katsu sando,” he joked on Twitter, while his followers argued over who would taste-test the new dish.
Pork belly also works brilliantly as an alternative to fried cutlets, says Romain Devic, executive chef of the Nobu hotel in Shoreditch, east London. “We wanted to revisit the traditional pork katsu sando and modernise it to feed this cool, young area of London,” he says. “It’s one of the most popular things to order at lunchtime in the Nobu cafe; we must make up to 50 a week. Many people try a sando here for the first time and I guess a pork belly sandwich seems quite posh, but these are Japanese ham sandwiches, really; it’s a casual dish that goes really well with coffee or matcha lattes.”
Despite only washing up on our Instagram feeds this year, sandos date back to sixteenth-century Japan. But perhaps less surprisingly (given they’re the kind of crustless white bread sandwiches that make many nostalgic about childhood), the British had a part in their creation.