The Cultural and Culinary Importance of Sandwiches 

In all its glorious forms, the humble sandwich is unquestionably a global culinary phenomenon. One of the world’s most convenient and versatile foods, a good sandwich works for any meal, at any time of the day, and is easily customisable to suit personal tastes and preferences. 

Defined by The British Sandwich & Food to Go Association as being any form of bread with a filling, the sandwich – including traditional triangles, wraps, baguettes, bagels, rolls, doorsteps, barms, buns, pitta, baps, and bloomers – appears a seemingly simple concept. On closer inspection, however, it’s clear that this culinary masterpiece is firmly rooted in different cultures and culinary traditions all around the globe. 

The Earl of Sandwich, John Montague, may well have popularised the concept of the modern sandwich among the English gentry way back in the mid-eighteenth century. Still, there’s little doubt that the sandwich had existed in many cultures and varying forms for thousands of years before that. Montague was likely inspired to call for his roast beef to be served between two slices of bread after enjoying filled pitta bread ‘sandwiches’ during his travels in the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, flatbreads have an extensive history in the Middle East and Mediterranean region – in her book ‘Bountiful Empire: A History of Ottoman Cuisine’, author Priscilla Mary Isin states that the concept of a filling rolled in bread has a long history in Turkish culturei.  

One of the earliest sandwiches, according to Jewish tradition, was eaten by a first-century Babylonian rabbi, Hillel the Elder, who wrapped a traditional unleavened matzah bread around Paschal lamb – the lamb sacrificed at the first Passover on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt. Observers of the annual Passover Seder feast at the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover still fondly partake in a recreation of this symbolic food today as part of the celebrationii

In China, the origins of the popular street food known as a roujiamo – similar to a Western burger or hot meat sandwich and most commonly made with slow-cooked pork – can be traced back over two thousand years. The Asian-style flatbread or ‘mo’ comes from the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) and the meat from the Zhou dynasty (1045-256 BC), making it possibly one of the world’s oldest sandwichesiii

There isn’t a great deal of written evidence of sandwiches in America before 1837, when Eliza Leslie included a recipe for a ham and mustard sandwich in her popular cookbook ‘Directions for Cookeryiv. Fast forward to 1896 when Good Housekeeping published an article that included a recipe for a peanut butter sandwich, followed in 1901 by what is said to be the first ever recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in The Boston Cooking School Magazinev. Little did they know that this was to become synonymous with US culture and a lunchbox staple for children all over the country. 

In the UK, some of the earliest printed recipes for sandwiches were included in Charlotte Mason’s book ‘The Lady’s Assistant’ in 1787vi after the sandwich had become more popular, often served as a late-night supper snack at society balls. During the 19th century, when the midday meal gradually migrated to later in the day, and a hot supper, therefore, became less of a requirement, the sandwich became a firm favourite for light suppers crafted from leftover lunch ingredients. 

Sandwiches have today evolved into a key part of the worldwide culinary experience, with almost every country boasting its own unique sandwich culture. The sandwich industry in the UK alone is worth around £8 billion, with over 3 billion sandwiches purchased annually. From humble beginnings, this much-loved creation is now integral to our culinary culture and definitely here to stay.