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 poker. 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, delicious, and could be eaten without dirtying up ones 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.
This origin story of the sandwich has been shared and repeated so many times that few people know the actual truth behind food structure we call the sandwich. John Montagu, while an integral aspect to the popularization and naming of the object in question, did not in fact 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, which loosely translates to “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 optimizing 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 be delicious 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 taken care of through 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. Here is a quote from here website that goes over the process:
“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?
Source - http://www.fuchsiadunlop.com/red-braised-pork-the-official-version/
Her cookbooks are fantastic and should be aggressively sought after for anyone interested in delicious Chinese food.
It should be noted at this time, that 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 pork. The recipes I am proposing here are just delicious and I believe will elevate the rou jia mo to be one of 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 for her restaurant, 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 preparation style of naan, the Indian flatbread, but adds in Mexican crema for a wonderful fluffy texture.
Here is her recipe below:
Mo Bread Technique
1. 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 dough pulls away from the bowl and forms a single mass.
2. Transfer to an oiled bowl and cover with oiled plastic wrap. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator.
3. 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
4. Flatten the dough slightly larger than the final size, as it will shrink. Cook on a medium heated pan or flat top with oil on both sides.
5. Cut halfway and fill with meat filling.
This recipe is taken from the profile on Shirley Chung and her Rou Jia Mo here - https://www.starchefs.com/cook/savory/technique/rou-jia-mo-chinese-hamburger
The rou jia mo described above 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, and doing a historical recreation would probably not be nearly as tasty as my proposed variant.
So to address my thirst for doing a proper historical recreation of an original sandwich, I decided to hunt down the recipe and process that 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 delicious by the time Victorian England came about.
After looking up countless recipes from British historians, I came across a recipe from the era that seemed to 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 that he wouldn’t be the type to jump over a London fad just for the sake of appearances, as he was known to be a very efficient man with a background of military professionalism. Here is a recipe from Victorian 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”.
“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 we'll 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, where 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, and likely with much more heft to it than the standard breads 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. Below is a 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
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 reasonably 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 delicious 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 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 in the last 200 years that we have been blessed by refrigeration, a regular Cambrian explosion of new ingredients, and the creation of truly remarkable sandwiches. I encourage you to use these recipes as a point of reference of where things started so that you are able to appreciate the sandwich you create that much more.