Matters of taste: Is the sandwich dead?

The rise of the wrap
May 22, 2013

The Luardos burrito van: a "wrap craze has engulfed London, following on the heels of a similar one in New York"

Ever since the 1750s, when John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, refused to stop for dinner and instead ordered cold beef in toast, those seeking a convenient meal-to-go have needed to look no further than their local sandwich outlet. As Prospect went to press, British Sandwich Week was paying tribute to the Earl’s invention.

The sandwich, one might well argue, is the culinary creation par excellence of western capitalism, an ingenious solution to the inconvenient fact that the need to eat diminishes productivity. Do away with cutlery, and the requirement to dine in a specific place, and suddenly the division between eating and working becomes less clear-cut. “I’m eating at my desk”; “Let’s grab a bite and discuss it”: it is hard to imagine such phrases being uttered had the sandwich not been invented.

In the last decade, however, the dominance of the sandwich has been threatened by a range of new work-friendly foods. For all its convenience, the sandwich has fallen foul of another fixation: the need to be thin. Increasingly, sandwiches seem stodgy and unwieldy, overstuffed with mayo and butter in order to ward off the dryness that tends to result when a salty slice of protein is placed between two slabs of bread. Hence the rise of leaner, carb-light alternatives, from salads in boxes to pots of edamame to Prêt à Manger’s absurd “no bread” sandwiches. And hence, too, the burgeoning popularity of what may just prove the sandwich’s eventual conqueror: the wrap.

The wrap’s recent emergence as a rival to the sandwich is ironic, given that the former predates the latter. Flatbreads are the oldest types of bread, and in places such as the Middle East and Asia have been wrapped round fillings for centuries, if not millennia. (Think of the spring roll, the Turkish/Iranian lavash and the burrito.) But in food, no less than in other areas, the west is skilled at appropriating the inventions of others, and it has contrived to produce a modern version of the wrap that seems utterly divorced from its non-western origins.

This came into being in—where else?—California in the early 1980s when, according to legend, the ex-baseball player (and, more recently, Boston Red Sox manager) Bobby Valentine, faced with a broken toaster at a restaurant he owned, wrapped a tortilla round standard club sandwich ingredients and called it a “club Mex.” The dish proved a hit, and the generic “wrap” was born. Three decades later, the sorry upshot of Valentine’s invention can be observed in the soggy, tasteless offerings available at any supermarket wrap counter.

But the results haven’t been all bad. Most foods that achieve widespread popularity in a generic—and usually bland—form eventually receive a gourmet makeover, often prompted by an upsurge of interest in what inspired them in the first place. This has happened recently with pizzas and burgers, and is now happening with wraps. Over the last year or so, something of a wrap craze has engulfed London, following on the heels of a similar one in New York. A host of outlets have sprung up, from The Kati Roll Company—selling excellent Indian paratha wraps—to burrito specialists like Benito’s Hat and Chilango.

And the trend has been further accelerated by the renaissance of street food: wraps, after all, are speedy to prepare, and suit both the ethnic leanings and the inventiveness of street food purveyors. It is genuinely hard to come up with new sandwiches, partly because most have been done before, but also because the range of successful fillings is limited, broadly, to western ingredients. (A notable exception is Vietnamese banh me, a French bread sandwich with spiced meat, herbs and seasoned vegetables.) Wraps, on the other hand—unsurprisingly, given their long presence in the Middle East and Asia—are an excellent vehicle for a wide variety of spicy foods.

Many of the best wraps I’ve tasted have been at street food markets: the Mexican stall Luardos serves delicious burritos and tacos, while Bhangra Burger does ingenious burgers wrapped in naan bread and accompanied by fiery chutneys. My discovery that wraps could hit such heights led me to experiment with my own flatbreads, and I was surprised by how straightforward they are, certainly compared with leavened bread: it really is just a case of mixing flour and water, rolling the resulting dough into rounds and quickly frying in a hot pan. The results, despite a tendency to look rustic, are tastier than most shop-bought tortilla or chapati, and are guaranteed to impress guests.

My latest discovery is kati roti, a version of which I recently made filled with potato chaat and coriander chutney, adapted from a recipe I found online. The dish took about an hour to prepare, and had a remarkable zingy freshness.

Eaten as a weekday supper, it was perfect: filling but not too heavy, thoroughly moreish, and eminently compatible with an episode of Game of Thrones. A year ago, the thought of eating a wrap for supper would have depressed me. But now, in our household at least, I can see it catching on.