Tag Archives: sandwiches

Subway: eat fresh, but is the meat fresh?

Here in Shanghai, where decent, filling, and affordable sandwiches aren’t easy to come by, Subway has been a godsend. Its shops are conveniently dotted around town, its offerings are consistent, and judging from the fact that I’ve never gotten sick from its raw veggies (*knock on wood) I’d have to say it ranks decently on food safety and quality. Plus, I’ve never encountered a grumpy Subway employee here; even when my emerging sub is in the fumbling hands of a new hire, service is never rude. In the four months since I went off meat and shut off many convenient, cheap, fast food choices, Subway has become an even closer friend, always nearby to comfort me as I introduced visitors to the pork-soupy wonders of Xiaoyang’s fried dumplings.

So I was excited to learn that this sandwich chain plans to massively grow their presence in China, more than doubling their stores from the current 220 to over 600 nationwide by 2015. Not only is it a “taste of home” for the growing numbers of North American expats here, but it’s also been catching on with locals as a healthy alternative to KFC and the like.

I, too, was persuaded long ago that Subway is a healthier option than most, whether I chose the turkey breast or chicken breast, the six-inch or footlong. During my post-college Philly days I even somehow convinced myself it was acceptable to order for lunch a $5 footlong (what a deal!) and add $1.30 for three cookies (what a deal!!) ’cause, well, it was Subway, so it couldn’t be that bad for me, right? (And, well, it was Philly, one of the fattest cities in the US, so I had a ways to go before I’d have to stop eating as much as I wanted all the time… right?)

But I had a realization this past weekend while scarfing down a six-inch Veggie Delite in the basement food court of the Zhongshan Park Cloud Nine mall. I was studying the wallpaper with pictures of the different types of sandwiches and the slogan “eat fresh” underneath the Subway logo, and I was sort of undressing the subs with my eyes: off with the warm, fresh-baked bread, off with the sauce, the fresh, well-washed lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, peppers… and there we go, the meat.

And my eyes darted between the meat and the “eat fresh” slogan, and I suddenly felt uneasy. Not because meat disgusts me now (it doesn’t, usually), but because it was one of those “world view shattering” moments, as I saw what I should’ve seen long ago: that wait a minute! the meat’s not exactly fresh: highly processed cold cuts, canned tuna, imitation crab, ground-meat meatballs, uniform slices of unnaturally soft and smooth chicken “breast”, and so on. And neither is the cheese.

So yes, the fresh array of veggies and bread, revolutionary in the fast food scene, is awesome, but can you still sincerely tell your customers to “eat fresh” when you’re serving mass-produced, processed meats? Is it even possible not to (serve junk) when your business is cheap and fast food, or is Subway the best we can aim for in a cash- and time-strapped world? Or does it matter at all, since the fresh ingredients sort of “cancel out” the processed ones, and a lot of people probably don’t realize how terrible cold cuts are because we grew up eating them in sandwiches at school?

Am I realizing all this way too late in the game?

Whatever the case, I have to give it to Subway’s marketing department. It had me fooled for a long while, and it took giving up meat altogether to realize their meat wasn’t great, either. (I’ll still go back for the Veggie Delite.)

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Middle Eastern Monday II: Falafel

Much delayed sequel to the previous post. It’s been a busy week (at work, sadly, not as much in the kitchen).

Sean had been wanting to making falafel since our Philly/NY days, but then it’d just been easier to buy them fresh off a cart complete with veggies, sauce, and rice/pita for 4 or 5 USD. Here, choices are more limited: I’m not a huge fan of Haya’s’ falafel and the 60+ RMB falafel “burger” at Gourmet Cafe, while super tasty, is only good for a splurge.

So we made our own, using this recipe as a rough guide for ingredients. Like the hummus, it turned out to be easier than we’d expected.

We started with a can of chickpeas…

…which we mashed with a spoon.

Then we added all the other ingredients, mixing til we got a squishy dough-like mixture. We made some modifications like adding an egg, but more on that below.

Since we don’t have an oven or deep-fryer, we pan-fried little falafel patties with a good amount of oil to imitate deep-frying.

They sizzled and browned and held together nicely in the pan. We watched with bated breath.

When they looked about done, we picked one out for a taste test. Having read some reviews about falafel falling apart and whatnot, we’d expected our first batch to fail in some way. But all we could do was grunt with pleasure for the next 5 seconds. It hit the spot like none other: crunchy on the outside, it was fragrant and moist and soft — but textured — on the inside. It might not look like your typical falafel, and I can’t attest to its authenticity, but I’d say the flavour and texture came very close to what we used to have in New York. (And yes, I’m using NY as a point of comparison for all foods whose originating country I haven’t yet visited…)

We removed them from the pan when they were just starting to blacken and most of the oil was soaked up.

Here is our lunch in full, probably one of the most satisfying meals I’ve ever had… ever:

(Yes, I know that isn’t pita bread. Sean biked all the way to City Shop to get pita that morning, but apparently the ovens over at MediterraneaN bakery had broken down — which basically meant no pita for the entire city of Shanghai that day. So we got the next best thing: nang bread, though even our fave Xinjiang place was out of their usual nang, which we like better.)

All in all, I’m incredibly thankful canned chickpeas can be found pretty easily in Shanghai; any supermarket Carrefour and up on the “foreigner-friendly” scale will stock it (usually for under 10 RMB/can). I have only just begun to fully appreciate their versatility.




Pan-fried Falafel

1 400g can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 slice of bread, toasted a few times and crumbled (makes 2/3 cup bread crumbs)
1/3 cup flour (we used pancake mix coz we didn’t have flour)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 large egg
Olive oil for frying

1. Mash chickpeas in a large bowl until they become crumbly but moist (do not use food processor). Stir in the onion, garlic, cilantro, cumin, bread crumbs, egg, salt, and pepper (and other spices/herbs if used).
2. Add flour/pancake mix until the mixture reaches a sticky, doughy, and moist but decidedly solid consistency. When you pick up some with your hands it should feel like it can hold together in a pan without breaking apart (vague, I know, but you’ll know).
3. With your hands, shape the mixture into patties approx. 5cm wide and 1cm deep. You should get 18-20 patties.
4. Heat 3 tbsp (or just enough to cover the pan) olive oil in pan with heat on high. When oil is very hot, place falafel patties in pan. Fry until bottom is browned and has hardened into a crust, then flip. Falafels are ready when both sides have hardened and look crunchy :)
5. Remove from pan and place on plate lined with paper towel. Repeat (adding more oil as necessary) until the mixture is used up.

Enjoy with your favourite sauces (we used homemade hummus and cilantro-infused aioli (wrong part of the world, sure, but went superbly with the falafel)), raw veggies, and bread!

*Makes about 18-20 small falafel patties. I’m not sure how long the mixture would last in the fridge/freezer because these were gone by lunch the following day! I’m guessing one day max in the fridge, and much longer in the freezer… but it’s always better fresh :)

*The mixture also works pan-fried in much less oil — it won’t end up very crunchy, but that’s fine if you’re bringing them to work for lunch the next day.


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Recreate: the egg and cheese

I’ve been a fan of McDonald’s sausage and egg mcmuffin for as long as I can remember, but my discovery of the much superior breakfast hoagie began with the $2.50 sausage and egg from Bui’s food truck at Penn. Bui’s sandwiches were known by many as the hangover cure, but for me it was the cure for just about any type of physical or emotional ailment.

When I started working at a center city office after graduation I moved on to egg and cheeses (with pepper and ketchup, please), partly ’cause it was minimally cheaper and partly due to my unfounded belief that cheese was healthier than sausage. Philly is known for having one of the highest obesity rates in the US, and I was getting ready to join the stats.

But then I left. When I went back to Philly for two days last November, I made sure to stop at the center city cart to grab one (although I hate the lady who owns it, but that’s another story). There it is in all its soft and chewy, sweet and salty glory:

And then I came back to Shanghai. And it took until yesterday, when I was at City Shop buying a baguette, mixed greens, and brie for lunch, for me to realize that I COULD MAKE THIS MYSELF! I’d been caught up by the fact that hoagie rolls don’t exist here (that I know of), but baguettes were just as good, if not better.

So this morning I recreated the egg and cheese using brie and leftover baguette, whipping the egg with a bit of milk and toasting the bread on the pan next to the frying egg. I don’t even know how to describe how satisfying it was, so here’s a picture. (I will get better with food descriptions, I promise!)

I can’t make this a habit though :(

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America, you’ll always be in my heart

My recent nostalgia for the States has been punctuated with cravings for a good sandwich, something I’d taken for granted during my days in Philly. So ever since I stumbled upon the website of one “NYC Deli” weeks ago while googling “burritos in Shanghai” (don’t ask), I’ve been pestering Sean to pay a visit with me. Yesterday was the big day.

Greeted with a pretty impressive menu, we decided to go for an order of “South Philly cheesesteak” (how could we resist?) and a combo meal involving a corned beef reuben, beef barley soup, lay’s chips, a cookie, and a drink. At 38rmb and 60rmb respectively, both sandwiches also came with a pickle and home-made coleslaw.

My first reaction upon seeing the reuben was: the meat looks dry. And then: the bread looks wrong. As it turned out, the meat was fine, the sauerkraut and dressing (thousand island though it was) weren’t bad, but the bread was definitely not rye, and not soaked in oil, as I remember from college dining days. In spite of this, and even though they could’ve done with a little more cheese, the sandwich was tasty on the whole. It almost felt healthful.

[I’m looking now at the menu we picked up and it looks like rye is one of the bread choices–we’d just neglected to specify. Don’t reubens by definition use rye though?? Ergh.]

And then the cheesesteak. At first I was a little perturbed that it came in a “French baguette”, but I have to say that it gave the beloved Italian hoagie a run for its money–what it lacked in delightful chewiness it made up with a crispy crust. The meat (can’t say for sure it was steak) and onions weren’t bad. But the cheese warrants a mention. It was creamy and runny, as cheesesteak cheese tends to be, but tasted a little suspect–tangier than cheez whiz. So I asked the server/manager what it was, and his response was “We mix it ourselves.” Hmm. Right. We were going to let it go, but then he offered that it was a blend of cheddar and evaporated milk…which at least sounds better for you than the chemical orgy that is cheez whiz. Now there’s only so much one can expect of a South Philly sandwich in a New York-style joint in China, so I have to give these good people points for effort.

My expectations had been guarded to begin with, so the experience was satisfying on the whole. Even though these weren’t exactly the sandwiches I held in my memory, they were still quite tasty, and did ease my “homesickness” a little bit. So until we discover a rival deli, we’ll probably be back.

As if we hadn’t had enough meat for the day, the street we walked up after dinner was lined with shops like this:

While a cut of raw pig didn’t appeal too much to us, we stopped by a mall on our way home and shared 3 Subway cookies and 2 egg tarts, making it a truly glorious, heart-stoppingly American night.

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Finally, a substitute for the gyro

If I were somehow forced into picking the cuisine of a single country to consume for the rest of my life, China would be my first choice, hands down. Nevertheless, I long ago began to have intense cravings for a multitude of foods from other parts of the world (think egg & cheese, hoagies, lamb & rice, gyros, souvlaki, raisin bran, whole wheat bread). Sadly, even though I am in arguably the most cosmopolitan city on the mainland, my pitiable student budget severely limits my options, as most non-Chinese food establishments are geared at expats/the more well-to-do Chinese. Also, and maybe I just haven’t looked hard enough, but I suspect that something like Dominican food is close to non-existent here.

So Sean and I have begun to scout out satisfactory replacements for all those foods we missed from our previous life. Yesterday proved to be a fruitful day for our quest.

We followed a recommendation from his (American) coworker and hit up a little stall by my University’s back gate for some “Chinese sandwiches”. I could muster only a hesitant optimism on our walk there, but as soon as I saw the spit, with its alternating layers of fat and meat, my skepticism began to melt away. We ordered 2 “sandwiches” at 6rmb each. The girl proceeded to gather a bunch of meat pieces from the bottom of the spit (minus 1 point for having meat pre-sliced), throw some lettuce on top, sprinkle some orange and green powders, and roll it all up in a flat pastry dotted with scallions and sesame seeds (sorta like a thin 葱油饼). Slipped them into plastic baggies so we wouldn’t have to get our fingers greasy.

It was delicious. The meat was salty and succulent (most of my friends know that I hold the “meat” in lamb gyros/lamb & rice very close to my overworked heart, but this stuff actually looked like meat!), the greens refreshing, and whatever that seasoning was–chili powder?–tickled just the right taste buds. The pastry was warm, slightly oily, and chewy or crispy depending on where I bit. We decided that this would be our substitute for the gyro while we were in China.

As this was a literal hole-in-the-wall with no seating area, we strolled down the street as we ate, but as soon as we reached the end of the block we turned shamelessly around for seconds–in our defense, they were little. The girl was amused. “Hao chi ma?” “Hen hao chi.” Hoping to hit a second bird with the same stone, I suggested that she should start selling rice boxes with this meat, but she said there wasn’t enough space to make rice. (Not true: a rice cooker takes up no space at all.)

The sign on the sidewalk called it Turkish roast meat. Chinese, Turkish–whatever, as long as it’s good, cheap, and not slated to be bulldozed like the rest of Shanghai, I’m happy to have satisfied my heavily-seasoned-roast-meat-wrapped-in-flatbread craving. Throw in the 30-minute round-trip walk and the lack of white sauce, and this might become one of the healthiest changes I’ll have made in quite a while.

Now if I could only convince them to make the portions about 3x bigger…

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