Top 5 sandwiches from around the world

Now that the dollar has rebounded (20-25% stronger against the euro and pound, depending on the day) the only good news coming out of our seismic crash is the fact that some vacations, even international ones, may be vaguely thinkable. What makes them more thinkable is a recession-proof global food group like the sandwich. Sandwiches have been on my mind a lot lately. A piece on my life in sandwiches for nationalgeographicfood.com meant a nostalgic trip through a childhood filled with falafel and brats (a disturbing combination). Nowadays, we tend to eat Halloween candy before the doorbell rings so some cranky kids last year ended up with provolone sandwiches, which I like to think (the kids didn't) was an interestingly urbane alternative.

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But for travelers, in particular, sandwiches are often the most authentic local food because they change shape easily, and embody each culture's own culinary traditions. And they're the one all-purpose meal in a hand that will always be relatively cheap. Everyone will have their own list of best homegrown sandwiches and the places that do justice to them (is Johnny's Po-Boys really the place to go in New Orleans? Where do you get the definitive New England lobster roll, because I've never had one that tasted as good as they sound, and the ultimate Chicago hot dog?). My global list of best sandwich kitchens, the ones that really do right by their local signature sandwich, includes the following:

1) In New York, I like the Stage Deli. This dicey choice will probably elicit howls of protest from native New Yorkers because the Stage is filled with tourists and its celebrity sandwiches read like kitsch party jokes (and personal insults; the gluttonous Aretha Franklin sandwich features pastrami and turkey and then, because that apparently wasn't considered enough, roast beef and swiss cheese).

But tourists aren't village idiots (we're all tourists somewhere) and the Stage pastrami sandwich is a classic. Which means you're not chewing, and chewing, on that leathery mauve flap of faux pastrami but its antidote, delicately perfumed, freshly sliced meat laced with fat. If you don't want to look like a tourist, though, the more politic choice is Barney Greengrass, where the sturgeon and Nova salmon sandwich offers maybe the perfect New York, or at least Upper West Side, bite.

2) The Dutch make the best sandwiches, because they have perfected a crusty white farmer's bread that is dense and soft at the same time, they know that lots of mayo makes any sandwich good, and they sustain a genuine cafe society. Plus there is all that golden cheese, the wheels of Edam and Gouda that sprawl across the tables of Dutch master paintings. Even given all the competition, though, Cafe Walem, which sits on a central Amsterdam canal, is my favorite lunch stop and its best sandwich features sheets of tender beef carpaccio draped across a thick slice of bread, in a bed of creamy mayo, and topped by a spray of toasted pumpkin seeds.

3) I've written a lot about Denmark's smorrebrod sandwiches but Sweden offers its own artful rendition of the open-face sandwich, and Stockholm's 19th-century food hall Ostermalms Saluhall features lots of vendors and a lesson in soulful Nordic cuisine. The real draws are the seafood stalls that usually serve a variation of the classic Swedish hoagie, which comes stacked with an explosion of small, sweet, very pink Baltic shrimp (pictured).

4) Vienna's Zum Schwarzen Kameel or The Black Camel, has been open since 1618 and Beethoven supposedly camped out here (but then every restaurant in Vienna claims Beethoven). There is a formal Black Camel restaurant but the real attraction is the combination cafe and bar where one long counter displays open-faced sandwiches spread with different toppings: egg salad, ham salad, spinach, caviar. The buttercup yellow egg salad is the eggy essence of egg salad and watching the Viennese matrons in their big operatic furs downing those dainty sandwiches is like watching brown bears scooping up lake fish. Plus the cafe's logo of a black camel wearing a plumed headdress, looking as poised as a horsey Vegas showgirl, is oddly elegant.

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5) L'As du Falafel, a doll-sized cafe and mostly take-out place, sits in the Marais district of Paris, on the Rue des Rosiers, where you can still see yeshiva boys running to class. What a lot of them have in their hand is the same thing every tourist is holding, and dripping all over the Rue des Rosiers, which must be coated in tahini and hummus. That's the eponymous sandwich from L'As de Falafel. What makes this version so good is the fresh falafel (it has to be because each ball is spoken for the minute it hits the pita), which locates the right balance between feathery and sturdy. But the grilled eggplant that gets plopped in the pita alongside the falafel adds its own depth of flavor.

Raphael Kadushin's work appears in Bon Appétit, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, and Concierge.com. His fiction and journalism have been widely anthologized in a variety of collections, including Best Food Writing 2001, Best Food Writing 2008, and National Geographic's best-selling Behind the Lens. He is the editor of two travel anthologies: Wonderlands and the upcoming (November 2008) Big Trips. He is also the senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press, where he signs and develops fiction, memoir, travel, and food books.


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