The Cult of the Sando

Shane Mitchell

The Japanese are so skilled at assimilating imported food traditions, they even have a word to describe it. Here, author Shane Mitchell wanders around Tokyo to find the best examples of the lowly sandwich brought to new heights.

It was not easy to find Steakhouse Shima. Even with a street diagram written in kanji script, the kind of treasure map concierges hand you to show to taxi drivers in Tokyo, locating the hidden temple of Tajima beef in Nihonbashi can require you to beg pedestrians for directions. (Someone finally took pity on me and personally escorted me to the correct door.)

Chef Oshima Manabu nodded as I sat at the six-seat counter bar. He is a cult favorite of American chefs such as David Chang and Sean Brock, who have posted meals at Shima on their Instagram feeds. Copper pots bubbled on the stovetop in his open galley kitchen. Assistants sliced onions, fried garlic, tended to the binchotan charcoal rotisserie grill. Manabu personally selects the cattle destined for his restaurant, and on request will produce documentation of each cow’s nose print, birth date, and lineage. He adjusted the toque on his closely cropped head and pulled out three massive marbled cuts of beef for my inspection.

“Filet, sirloin, or tenderloin,” he asked.

“Which do you recommend?”

He nodded and pointed to each. “Nara, Kyoto, Kyoto. The sirloin is from a ranch in Wadayama. Choose this one.”

The meat arrived caramelized, but perfectly rare inside, topped with slivers of fried garlic. I simply couldn’t eat it all.

“Don’t worry,” said Manabu, kindly. “I will make you a sando.”  

That promise alone was worth the $200 lunch tab.

The lowly sandwich has attained cult status in Japan. As is true of other culinary superstars that evolved from humble beginnings (ramen, pizza), the featured player of the brown bag lunch—the second-tier entry in any afternoon tea tray—has developed a fanatical following. For those unfamiliar with Japan’s long history of adapting and elevating imported food traditions, the phenomenon can be puzzling, but the Japanese are masters of this assimilation. They even have a word to characterize it: Yōshoku refers to any Western-style dish that has received a makeover suited to the local palate. The version prepared by a rigorous chef like Oshima Manabu—who obsesses over the quality of the bread, the precision of presentation, and the sourcing of ingredients—represents one extreme, but as I discovered during my deep dive into sando culture, variations are more or less ubiquitous in the city, displayed at Shibuya and Ginza depachika (food halls), subway konbini (convenience stores), artisan bakeries, and late-night room service menus at top hotels.


Shane Mitchell

The history of sando dates back to the 16th century, when the first Portuguese and Dutch trading ships landed at Nagasaki and introduced bread to the locals. (Bread is called “pan” by the Japanese, a variation of the Portuguese word pão.) Consumption was interrupted as Japan closed its borders and attempted to purge foreign influences in the 1630s, but returned in the form of a hard-baked field ration with a long shelf life during the Opium War. Bread finally gained popularity during the Meiji Period, when pioneering Japanese baker Yasubei Kimura created anpan, a natural rice yeast roll filled with sweet adzuki bean paste, in 1874. (Kimuraya Sohonten still sells anpan, which resembles a bready, filled donut at its store in Ginza.) Other yeast buns soon followed, including melon pan (with a meringue-like topping) and cream pan (inspired by cream puffs or choux à la crème), invented by Nakamurya baker Aizo Soma in 1904. The evolution continued into the lean years immediately following World War II, when commercial bread baked in regional factories with imported wheat and powdered milk became a cheap substitute for rice during the American Occupation. The squishy white sandwich bread fed to Japanese schoolchildren became today’s standard square loaf known as shokupan—literally "food bread”—and inspired the modern day sando. At first, fillings, such as an egg omelet called tamagoyaki, were familiar to the Japanese palate. Then things got creative.


Shane Mitchell

After my first sando encounter, I met translator Nobuko Iwanami for lunch at Centre the Bakery, a café in Ginza that specializes in toast, but also offers an extensive sandwich menu. (A shelf of luxe toasters from DeLonghi, Dualit, and Russell Hobbs lines one wall of the contemporary dining room; guests can choose their favorite machine and a waitress plugs it in at the table for a DIY experience.) I ordered shaki shaki, made with thinly sliced Daisen ham from Tattori Prefecture, delicately folded next to buttery lettuce and a smear of Maille mustard, placed between double-thick slices of shokupan. It was like eating a cloud. Centre the Bakery bread is so esteemed (their dough is dry-aged for 36 hours before baking) the crusts were served separately in a bowl on the side. “Mottainai,” explained Nobuko, as she bit into her chunky egg salad sandwich. “Nothing should go to waste.” I already knew it was considered impolite in Japan to leave food on the plate, but this concept has an added element of regret, rooted in a Shinto belief that all objects have a soul, and to discard even a crust of bread is disrespectful. We gladly devoured them all.

Next, Nobuko and I weaved through crowded aisles of the Daimaryu department store food hall to find Sandwich House Märchen, where the display counter contained a tempting array of fresh takeaway sando: vegetable croquette, shrimp cutlet, carrot salad, peanut cream, pastrami, and even a tempura battered chicken variation on a Philly cheesesteak. Peering through a glass window into a prep kitchen behind the counter, I observed one of the staff neatly arranging chunks of mango, kiwi, and banana before smothering them in freshly whipped cream, and gently pressing them between thin, crust-less slices of bread. The most coveted is ichigo, made with seasonal strawberries, which can cost up to $10 per berry depending on flavor, grade, and ripeness.


Shane Mitchell

We moved on to find the original Maisen Tonkatsu, sited in a former public bathhouse in the maze of streets behind Omotesando Hills in Shibuya, where Harajuku street culture meets high fashion. The oak counter bar, with its swivel seats, reminded me of old-fashioned soda fountains. Nobuko and I ordered the signature Kurobuta katsu sandwiches with cha me ton, which translates poetically as “tea beauty pig.” As prized as waygu beef, it’s a hybrid of heritage breed Berkshire and domestic Japanese black pigs, from Ibaraki Prefecture. The thick sandwiches were paired with grated daikon radish, a pot of spicy hot mustard, and housemade tonkatsu sauce, which tasted like sweeter, thicker Worcestershire. Businessmen next to us wolfed down panko-crusted deep fried pork loin mounded with shredded cabbage. (Spiky panko breadcrumbs are typically made from the heels of shokupan loaves.) Similar to schnitzel, katsuretsu (cutlet) is also considered a yōshoku dish, adapted by another Tokyo restaurant in 1899, but it gained popularity first as a filling for sandwiches sold at intermission during kabuki theater.

Chef Sean Brock, who also made the pilgrimage to Steakhouse Shima and Maisen Tonkatsu on his most recent visit to Tokyo, had issued me instructions about Shima’s steak sando: “It’s meant to be eaten cold,” he said. So I left it marinating in my Imperial Hotel suite’s mini-fridge, neatly packaged in its bamboo bento box. By the time I opened it for breakfast several days later, the bread had soaked up chef Manabu’s caramelized onions and special tomato sauce, and the meat had tenderized even more, giving the sandwich the consistency of beefy butter. “This is certainly one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had,” Brock added, “with amazing white bread cut in perfect rectangles, it doesn’t get soggy in the box. I’ve been trying to replicate it for the last five months—you can’t just use American bread—still not there yet but getting close!”

Funny, when food fads come full circle.