Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > Food> Discover > Making a case for the open-faced sandwich

Making a case for the open-faced sandwich

As the predecessor to the now-ubiquitous avocado toast, the open-faced sandwich has existed in myriad food cultures around the world for eons

A selection of open-faced sandwiches.
A selection of open-faced sandwiches. (iStockphoto)

Long before words like eco-friendly and sustainability were being bandied about by the climate change warriors, as they ate their ethically sourced food atop edible crockery and with cutlery made with everything from corn starch to compressed millet, the cuisine of fifteenth century England had already beat them to the chase.

It was then, at the very start of the so-called Middle Ages, that thin slabs of coarse bread called trenches were employed in lieu of plates. Atop these sat slices of meat, chopped boiled eggs or cheese. While they were perfectly fine to eat, mostly the soggy trenches were discarded after their toppings eaten. These scraps were then given to beggars who came to be called the trencherman.

Interestingly, this gave birth to what we know today as the open-faced sandwich. Yes, the veritable predecessor to the hipster chic avocado/mushroom/hummus toast we can’t seem to get enough of. Over the centuries, the open-faced sandwich had a delicious metamorphosis and was spun off into several interesting iterations. The most popular of all being the ones of the Scandinavian countries.

Also Read | Going continental with sandwich recipes from Denmark

Scandi OG

Known multifariously smørrebrød in Denmark, smørbrød in Norway, and smörgås or macka in Sweden, these open-faced buttered bread sandwiches (generally made with a base of whole-grain rye bread called rugbrod) are topped with a host of specialities. These can range from the bounties of the Scandi seas like pickled herring, boiled prawns and gravadlax (similar to smoked salmon) to steak, ham, cheese and liver pâté. These are generally secured atop the bread with condiments like butter, mayonnaise and even lard in some extreme cases. And always garnished with the favourite Scandi herb of dill.

It’s worth noting that the Danes take their smørrebrød so seriously, that it is certainly not considered a form of sandwich; rather, a sandwich is considered a form of smørrebrød with an additional slice of bread on top. So fastidious are the Danes about their smørrebrød, that they even have a definitive set of rules around the eating of them. To begin with, one must always eat the herring one first, then the other fish, meat and cheese smørrebrøds. Always with a fork and knife and never with one’s hands.

It is believed that the onset of industrialization in the nineteenth century birthed this iconic meal. As factory workers were no longer able to return home for a midday meal, they had their lunch to-go. Over the decades, this custom became more mainstream and the smørrebrød segued into the Danish culinary milieu and beyond.

Also Read | Recipe: Two ways with chicken bagel sandwich

Open expressions

The neighbouring Nordic countries of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland have also co-opted the open-faced sandwich offering expressions with the Finnish voileipä. Called võileib in Estonia, both again mean “butter bread” and are topped with a similar range of meats and seafood like the Scandi ones.

In The Czech Republic, obložené chlebíčky is a very popular type of open lunch sandwich, made slightly different. One that sees a diagonally sliced piece of white bread called veka spread with butter and topped with the usual herring, meat or cheese as the protein component.

Equally different is the Dutch iteration of the open-faced sandwich called an uitsmijter. Literally translated as “Mr. Throw Out” (or, what we’d call a ‘bouncer’ in club parlance), an uitsmijter was first served to drunk, hungry revellers late at night, just before they were ‘thrown out’ at closing time. This open-faced sandwich is composed of a de rigueur bread base with cheese and ham as the ‘middle’ layer. With a runny, sunny-side up fried egg as its crowning glory.

The Franco-Welsh connection

Paying rich homage to the fromage is the way the French and the Welsh treat their open-faced sandwiches. For the French, it is the croque monsieur that reigns supreme. This one, with its jambon (ham), beurre (butter) and gratinated cheese (generally gruyère, but sometimes comté or emmental) parts, sits atop a soft slice of pain de mie.

The sandwich can either be grilled in a hot sandwich press, or shallow fried in a pan with more butter. It is also not uncommon for the finished sandwich to then be doused with a thick layer of the unctuous béchamel sauce. And just like the Dutch uitsmijter, with a fried egg topping it, the croque monsieur gets a gender change and a cutesy name of a croque madame.

Also using a sauce similar to a béchamel, but with a bit of mustard thrown in is the Welsh rarebit. This open-faced sandwich sees toasted bread slathered in a cheesy sauce and then set under a grill for finishing. While some versions simply melt grated cheese on toast, others make the sauce of cheese, ale, wine, and Worcestershire sauce. Finished off with a dusting of cayenne pepper or paprika. The last two, adding a bit of a smoky, spicy hum to an otherwise cheese-forward sandwich. One that’s certainly not for the faint of heart. But then, the best of things in life aren’t.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

Also Read | The BLT sandwich recipe that spells perfection

Next Story