x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Desi life: a Sharjah Sandwich is worth the traffic woes

The best sandwich in the UAE? Our Desi girl thinks so.

One of the first things you'll notice about me is my love for food – and not just the eating part. My Pinterest account has at least six different boards dedicated to food. I have been known to travel all the way to Karachi just to satisfy my craving for Raju's Falooda or Hanifia's Hunter Beef. (It was a very sad day for the budget airlines when these delicacies finally made their way to the UAE.) Listing where to find the best of Karachi's food in the UAE will take an entire column, so we'll do that another day. Today, we're going to talk about the Sharjah Sandwich.

A bit of background first: this story goes back about a year, when a group of friends and I were – as usual – undecided on where to go for dinner. Most didn't care where, as long as it was cheap, quick and filling. Some of us (read "me") wanted to add "memorable" and "never tried before" to the list. And that's when N – my best friend and partner-in-foodie-crime – said that it sounded an awful lot like I was in the mood for the Sharjah Sandwich.

She proceeded to describe the most mouthwatering delight and were it not that we were having the discussion in Dubai during a weekend, nothing would have stopped me from making a beeline for Sharjah. But Dubai-Sharjah traffic is, perhaps, the only thing that can stand between me and good food so we put a pin in it and settled for something so unremarkable that I don't remember what it was.

Fast forward to this weekend. N and I were lounging around, seriously craving something, but we didn't know what. Cheesecake? Nope – horror stories of two-hour queues at The Cheesecake Factory put us off. All of a sudden N's eyes lit up and within 30 seconds we were speeding down the Dubai-Sharjah motorway, with N talking to the Sharjah Sandwich guy (who she has on speed dial!). Our sandwiches were pre-ordered and would be ready in precisely the amount of time it would take to get there. (You see why I'm best friends with N?)

When we pulled up outside the old Sharjah Gold Souq, I was so happy I could have cried. The seedier the establishment, the more excited I get at the prospect of eating there. Credit for this goes to my desi genes, perhaps. We walked up the stairs to Al Shaab, a tiny cafeteria no more than eight by 12 feet, with walls lined with tea packets, milk tins and jam jars. There was an old tabletop stove in a corner, on which three huge, battered kettles were whistling away. In another corner, someone was busy with an ancient manual juicer and fresh oranges. And in the centre was the Sandwich Master, who was standing behind a massive grill that had seen better days.

I watched him slap a piece of bread on the grill, slather some butter on, followed by a whole, crushed vegetable samosa (the secret ingredient, probably) and top it with chopped onion, tomatoes, green chillies and a dollop of cheese. He covered the whole thing with another piece of bread and then grilled the glorious stack. And out came a sizzling, two-inch-thick slab the size of a small pizza, which was then expertly rolled up, shawarma-style.

The sandwich possessed the goodness of a vegetable samosa, but with cheese. It had the taste of a desi omelette, but without the egg. It's difficult to explain, but this definitely is something you have never tasted before.

Al Shaab has been around for more than 20 years, and this is the only kind of sandwich it makes (apart from a butter-jam affair for breakfast). In the 15 minutes it took us to wolf ours down, 12 sandwiches made their way out of the door. The guys told me that on a regular weekend, they make 2,000 of these babies.

As I sank my teeth into the steaming, fiery hot sandwich and washed it down with copious amount of sweet milk tea, I didn't doubt it.

The Sharjah Sandwich was worth the drive. And it was definitely worth the year-long wait.

PS: Bill for two – Dh28. Seriously.

• The Sharjah Sandwich is available at Al Shaab Cafeteria (Special Veg Sandwich Maker stall), second floor, Sharjah Gold Souq. Call 06 572 7309. Want more on the sandwich? Visit our Bites blog, www.thenational.ae/bites

The writer is an honest-to-goodness desi fan living in Dubai