Legend has it that the mighty John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich invented the first sandwich around 1762 during a rousing 24-hour gambling session. He requested that some salt beef be placed between two slices of bread so that he could hold his food and continue to play cards. As anyone knows, having grease smeared all over cards when money is on the line is not only poor practice, it could be considered a form of cheating.
The necessity of having a food option that was not only sustaining, enjoyable, and could be eaten without dirtying up one’s business was such a brilliant idea that it spread like wildfire across the entire country. People nearby requested that they be brought, “The same as Sandwich” and the name seemed to fit appropriately. Whether Montagu won or lost at cards on that fateful day has been lost to history, but his namesake will live on forever.
The Origins of Sandwiches
This origin story of the sandwich has been shared and repeated so many times that few people know the actual truth behind the food structure we call the sandwich. John Montagu, while an integral aspect to the popularization and naming of the object in question, did not actually invent the idea of putting meat between bread. Like many other great historical inventions, the first sandwich originated in China around 200 BC, nearly 2000 years prior to Montagu. Today it is called the Rou Jia Mo (肉夹馍), which loosely translates as “Meat Between Bread”. It typically involves a very simple bread comprising flour, water, and yeast with a slow-cooked pork belly filling that has been heavily spiced.
There is less romance and intrigue behind rou jia mo’s creation, and the historical record is largely substantiated by reports of bread being made and meat being eaten with it. Jia Zhigang, a history professor at Northwest University in Xi'an claims that no actual written record existed until the royal family during the Tang Dynasty helped evangelize rou jia mo around 700 AD.
The sandwiches of today tend to be considerably different from these simple treasures from our past, often designed for ease of construction and availability of ingredients. Preserving and preparing meat prior to the invention of refrigeration was a laborious process. In addition, the Chinese custom of slow cooking and spicing pork has a very long tradition going back millennia. One of the most popular Chinese methods for preparing pork that could taste good in a rou jia mo involves red-braising the meat. This type of pork was especially loved by Chairman Mao Zedong, and he even had a specific recipe created to his exact specifications, appropriately titled Mao’s Red-Braised Pork. The secret to a successful red-braise sauce is to age a master stock of the sauce and preserve it for as long as possible. In practice, there are Chinese chefs who have stocks dating back hundreds of years that have been saved for generations. This adds an extremely distinct flavor profile that is nearly impossible to recreate.
Fuschia Dunlop, a wonderful cookbook author, took the time to meet with the late Mao’s relatives and managed to source the actual recipe for the preparation of this meat. She discusses the process on her website:
“I was particularly amused by this because in the course of research for my Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook I was shown two different versions of this in Mao’s home village Shaoshan alone: one, made by the wife of the local Communist Party Secretary, was a simple dish of braised pork belly, cooked in lard with dark soy sauce to give colour, a dash of vinegar and a little sugar; the other, made in the kitchens of the Shaoshan Guesthouse, where I’d just had lunch with Mao’s nephew, was a more sophisticated dish, coloured with caramelised sugar (糖色), spiced with dried red chillies, star anise and ginger, and enhanced by some juices of fermented beancurd. Who can say which is truer to Mao’s own tastes?”
Her cookbooks are fantastic and should be sought after by anyone interested in Chinese food. Below is a slightly adapted recipe, designed to work in sandwiches.
- Pork Belly - 1 pound
- Peanut Oil - 2 tablespoons
- Cola - 4 tablespoons
- Sherry, Mirin or Shaoxing Wine - 1 tablespoon
- Ginger - 2 teaspoons, chopped
- Star Anise - 1 tablespoon
- Red Chili - 1 tablespoon
- Cinnamon - 1 teaspoon
- Soy Sauce, Sugar, Salt, Spicy Fermented Bean Paste (optional, but strongly encouraged)
- Cook the pork in boiling water for a few minutes (3-4), then remove from the water and cut into small cubes.
- In a wok, add the oil and cola and cook until they form a thick saucy texture. When it reaches a pleasantly syrupy consistency, add the pork and wine. Raise the heat and coat the pork thoroughly with the oil mixture.
- Cover the pork with water until it is fully submerged and add the ginger, chili, star anise, and cinnamon.
- Allow the wok to boil, then lower the heat and simmer for close to 1 hour. When finished, add the garnish ingredients in small dashes and serve. If the mixture hasn’t thickened to your liking, add a tablespoon of cornstarch and cook for 5 more minutes on medium heat, stirring often.
Note: Many street vendors and current producers of rou jia mo do not put red-braised pork in their sandwiches, instead preferring a simpler and messier type of spiced slow cooked pork. The recipes I am proposing here are just as satisfying and I believe will elevate the rou jia mo to be one of the top tier sandwiches of the world.
The bread for the most amazing rou jia mo comes from the mind of another outstanding innovator, Chef Shirley Chung of China Poblano in Las Vegas. She wanted to add a perfect rou jia mo to her restaurant’s menu, and was unsatisfied with traditional Chinese bread, as it is cooked more for function than flavor. Her new recipe for Chinese “Mo” or bread uses aspects of the preparation style of naan, the Indian flatbread, but adds in Mexican crema for a wonderfully fluffy texture.
Here is her recipe below (ingredients are estimated):
Mo Bread Ingredients:
- Milk: 1 cup
- Crema (or sour cream as a substitute): ½ cup
- Eggs: 2 large
- Water: ½ cup
- Flour: 4 cups
- Sugar: 2 tablespoons
- Salt: 1 teaspoon
- Baking Powder: 2 teaspoons
- Oil: for pan frying (about 2 tablespoons)
Mo Bread Technique
- Mix milk, crema, eggs, and water. Separately mix flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Combine wet and dry mixtures and mix using a spiral dough hook on medium speed until the dough pulls away from the bowl and forms a single mass.
- Transfer to an oiled bowl and cover with oiled plastic wrap. Let it sit overnight in the refrigerator.
- The next day, portion the dough into 4-inch balls and place onto a tray. Cover with plastic and proof for 2 hours at room temperature.
- Flatten the dough slightly larger than the final size, as it will shrink. Cook until crispy on a medium heated pan or flat top with oil on both sides.
- Cut halfway and fill with meat filling.
Note: The rou jia mo described here is very different from the ones consumed in 200 BC. Food preparation had not reached the level of specialization and focus on taste at that time. A proper historical recreation would probably not be nearly as tasty as my proposed version.
So, to quench my thirst for doing a proper historical recreation of an original sandwich, I decided to hunt down the recipe and process which would have been used to create John Montagu’s famous salt beef between bread. Admittedly, the reason this wasn’t done for the rou jia mo is partly because I don’t have the technical ability to scour over historical Chinese texts, and partly because bread was actually edible by the time John Montagu came about.
After looking up countless recipes from British historians, I came across a recipe from the era that seemed both appropriate, and lacking in poisonous alum. At the time, when Montagu invented his famous sandwich, a fad was rushing through London to make bread whiter by adding alum powder to it. I will give Montagu the benefit of doubt and assume he wasn’t the type to jump on a London fad just for the sake of appearances, as he was known to be a very efficient man with an esteemed background of military professionalism. Here is a recipe from Georgian-era England, generously lifted from the fantastic Maria Rundell’s "New System of Domestic Cookery", published in 1807. Maria Rundell is particularly famous for her recipe for homemade yeast, and she was thought of as “The Original Domestic Goddess”.
Source: Bail Gate books
“Let flour be kept four or five weeks before it is begun to bake with. Put half a bushel of good flour into a trough, or kneading-tub; mix with it between four and five quarts of warm water, and a pint and a half of good yeast; put it into the flour, and stir it well with your hands till it becomes tough. Let it rise about an hour and twenty minutes, or less if it rises fast; then, before it falls, add four quarts more of warm water, and half a pound of salt; work it well, and cover it with a cloth. Put the fire then into the oven; and by the time it is warm enough, the dough will be ready. Make the loaves about five pounds each; sweep out the oven very clean and quick, and put in the bread; shut it up close, and two hours and a half will bake it. In summer the water should be milk-warm, in winter a little more, and in frosty weather as hot as you can well bear your hand in, but not scalding, or the whole will be spoiled. If baked in tins, the crust will be very nice.
The oven should be round, not long; the roof from twenty to twenty-four inches high, the mouth small, and the door of iron, to shut close. This construction will save firing and time, and bake better than long and high-roofed ovens.
Rolls, muffins, or any sort of bread, may be made to taste new when two or three days old, by dipping them uncut in water, and baking afresh or toasting.”
This is a very old recipe, from the days when a person such as Maria Rundell would likely have a direct connection with her wheat provider. She would likely make her own yeast, and the oven used to cook this bread would be a fired oven with a chimney. It is a thick and hearty wheat bread, with much more heft to it than the standard bread of today.
John Montagu held many important titles in his day, but his primary career was that of an Admiral in the British Navy. This is particularly relevant for the meat portion of the Sandwich, as his recipe for beef was undoubtedly heavily influenced by the traditional Navy practices for salting beef. Here is 18th-century Admiral Sir Charles Knowles of the British Navy’s instructions for properly salting beef.
Admiral Sir Charles Knowles’s Receipt to Salt Meat
Georgian-Era Salted Beef (or Pork)
Salt Meat Ingredients:
- Beef (or Pork): Freshly butchered, portioned into desired sizes
- Saltpeter: Equal parts with bay-salt, roughly 1 cup
- Bay-Salt: Equal parts with saltpeter, roughly 1 cup
- Common Salt: Roughly 2 cups
- Brown Sugar: About ⅔ cup for beef, less for pork
Salt Meat Instructions:
- Preparation: As soon as the ox (or pig) is butchered, skin it and cut into desired pieces as quickly as possible.
- Initial Salting: While the meat is still hot, mix together an equal quantity of pounded saltpeter and bay-salt, heated in an oven. Sprinkle about 2 ounces of this mix per pound of meat.
- Draining: Place the salted meat pieces on shelving boards to drain for 24 hours. After 24 hours, turn the pieces, sprinkle them again with the salt mixture, and allow them to drain for another 24 hours.
- Drying: After the 48-hour period, wipe each meat piece dry using clean, coarse cloths.
- Final Salting: In an oven, heat a generous amount of common salt and mix it with roughly one-third of brown sugar upon removal. For each pound of meat, rub in about half a pound of this salt-sugar mixture.
- Storage: Pack the treated meat pieces into casks or barrels. It's recommended to size the storage container based on how much meat will be consumed at one time to minimize exposure to air.
- Notes: The process remains similar for pork, but you'll want to use more salt and less sugar. The key to preservation for both meats is ensuring they are salted while still hot.
Note: This recipe is based on historical preservation methods. Modern methods of meat preservation may differ, and consuming meat preserved this way without proper refrigeration or cooking can pose health risks. Always ensure food safety when following historical recipes.
As soon as the ox be killed, let it be skinned and cut up into pieces fit for ufe, as quick as possible. And salted whilst the meat be hot; for which purpose have a sufficient quantity of saltpeter and bay-salt pounded together and made hot in an oven, of each equal parts. With this sprinkle the meat, at a rate of about two ounces to the pound. Then lay the pieces on shelving boards to drain for twenty-four hours. Then turn them, and repeat the same operation and let them lie for twenty-four hours longer. By this time, the salt will all be melted, and have penetrated the meat and the pieces be drained off. Each piece must then be wiped dry with clean coarse clothes and a sufficient quantity of common salt made hot likewise in an over and mixed, when taken out, with about one-third of brown sugar. The casks being ready, rub each piece well with this mixture, and pack them down allowing about half a pound of the salt and sugar to each pound of meat, and it will keep good several years, and eat very well. It is best to proportion the casks or barrels to the quantity consumed at a time, as the seldomer it is exposed to the air the better. The same process does for pork, only a larger quantity of salt, and less sugar; but the preservation of both depends equally upon the meat being hot when first salted.
This recipe feels at least marginally similar to modern-day corned beef or pastrami, though this meat would likely have been saltier and less easy to eat. That first sandwich enjoyed by John Montagu was certainly an enormous one, as he hadn’t eaten anything since he began his 24-hour gambling binge. I would imagine there was at least a ½ pound of beef, between two pieces of lightly toasted bread.
These two recipes, one for a satisfying rou jia mo, the first recorded meal consisting of meat between bread, and the other a historical recreation of the original sandwich as it was had by its creator, should provide a new consideration in sandwich history. These two sandwiches both consist of a simple type of bread and a diligently prepared meat, and, in that way, are very similar to one another, despite occurring thousands of years apart. For a long time, sandwiches were terribly uninventive, and it is only after the early 1900’s that we have been blessed with refrigeration, an explosion of new ingredients, and the creation of truly remarkable sandwiches.
Outside of the Chinese pork on a simple bun and the salted beef with thick wheat bread, other sandwiches have also been consumed for centuries. One of the other candidates for the invention of the sandwich is Hillel the Elder. His writings shortly before 0 AD detail a sandwich made from matzah, bitter herbs, and lamb. His recipe showcases one core aspect of sandwiches – that they are intuitive to human nature and that, when one has bread and other ingredients, a sandwich is soon to follow.