With the emergence of the healthy hashtag movement... Is bread toast?
It's been a food staple of Irish palates for aeons, but does the healthy hashtag movement spell the end of the sandwich?
Bread is dead. At least, that's what the trendspotters would have you believe. Salad bars, 'fast' health food chains and juice bars offering healthy lunch options have slowly taken over Dublin streets, and the average office lunch is now more likely to come wrapped in lettuce leaves, a tortilla, or sushi rice, than between two pieces of sliced pan. Are we now living in a post-sandwich era? Has the traditional ham and cheese had its day?
Part of the trend can be put down to the rise of low-carb eating. Though we shook off the Atkins Diet and its fried breakfasts pretty quickly after its initial, early 00s boom (seriously, who could survive that long on steak?), the rampant carb-phobia it ushered in has taken on a more lasting afterlife.
Bakers in the UK reported plummeting sales of traditional white sliced bread this year, and sales of pasta, rice and potatoes have also fallen. Even Subway, a perennial favourite with students, and anyone who likes to measure their lunch in feet (a 'foot-long' sub roll is the standard), reported a fall in revenue over the last two years.
Tastes are changing and once-fringe eating habits are becoming the norm. Talk of wheat intolerance is in the air, along with a rise in the number of people going vegan (there's no survey for Ireland, but in the UK veganism is up by 360pc in the last 10 years).
Even for those not committed to a specific lifestyle or health regime, the Irish are eating more adventurously. A brief survey of popular lunch spots is proof of that: the queue for Dawson Street salad and juice cafe Sprout and Co is daunting, while down on Baggot Street office workers line up at Cocu for courgetti with roasted pork, or at paleo-friendly Borlottie for boxes of cauliflower rice (exactly as it sounds - ground-up cauliflower used as a surprisingly versatile base for meat and superfood toppings).
The emphasis is on exotic, carefully sourced ingredients which are interesting enough that you won't notice the missing carbs. As a (mostly) lifelong vegetarian and sometime vegan, I find it refreshing that restaurants are catching on to alternative eating habits and health-conscious choices, making those who would in the past be termed 'picky eaters' feel more welcome.
It's at CHQ, the long hall of food outlets, restaurants and shops situated in the heart of Dublin's tech and finance district, that this cultural change is most visible. Drop by at midday and you'll notice queues outside shops offering salads and kale-based cuisine, places like Freshii and Toss'd, while their counterparts selling coffee and sandwiches are relatively empty.
Down the centre of the hall, lines of workers sit with salad boxes. I visited at lunchtime on Monday to ask a few about their eating habits, and to find out whether reports of the death of the sandwich are greatly exaggerated, or true.
Orla and Katy each bought a salad bowl from Toss'd, nearby. "I'd never really have a sandwich for my lunch," Katy told me. "There are definitely more healthy options available, though they're also more expensive. I think it costs more to eat healthy."
Orla said she'd tried the cauliflower rice at Borlottie: "It was really good, though not the same as real rice", but admits that she'll still buy a sandwich from time to time: "Not a breakfast roll, but maybe a chicken fillet roll."
Malachy and Ian were finishing up salad bowls from Freshii. "I think you'll always need a bit of bread," Ian told me, "but the concept of bread at breakfast then again at lunch is dying out. You can't beat a good sandwich, just not all the time."
He pointed to the bad reputation wheat has garnered of late; it's definitely bloating, as foods go, but is also unfairly demonised. Malachy added: "I wouldn't say the sandwich is dead. I don't think it'll ever be dead in Irish culture. We were brought up that way and I think it'll always have its place. But there is a big push towards healthier eating - more protein, organic foods, superfoods. Maybe people are a bit more likely to judge what they're eating."
Amid the lettuce wraps and protein pots, I encountered one unrepentant sandwich eater who had brought with him an old favourite. Owen, a 22-year-old wearing a white shirt and a sharp haircut, is lashing into an old-fashioned crisp sandwich. The sandwich, a classic familiar to anyone who grew up in Ireland, now seems like a subversive choice: did he feel a little at odds with his environment (he is sitting at a desk with two friends who have chosen salads)?
"Yeah, completely," he responds. "There's not many of us left. People are getting more healthy, more foodie. They're eating a lot less bread. I stick to the old burrito or a crisp sandwich." He recommended King brand, in cheese and onion flavour.
I also spoke with Brian Lee, who co-founded Irish salad chain Chopped in 2011. By the end of this year they will have expanded to 20 branches, selling build-your-own salads to eat in or take away.
"When we set up our first Chopped people thought we were mad and that Irish people weren't ready for a healthy fast food chain," he said in an email. "Now we're seeing queues around the block at all of our outlets."
A menu favourite is the 'TRX Chopped Force' salad, named for the suspension-training workout, made with roasted vegetables and Greek-style chicken. As with everything on the menu, it's customisable down to the dressing, the leaves and the herbs sprinkled on top.
"Chopped's initial growth came from filling the gap in the market for 'healthy fast food' for people who are into fitness and nutrition," said Lee, "but we've seen that the demand for this type of food goes far beyond that original audience. Now we sell Chopped to people from the ages of five to 95, and we put this down to customers being more educated and interested in what they eat."
One thing people might not realise, though, is that you can get your Chopped order in sandwich form: the salad bowls might steal the show, but the old classic is still there in the background. Lee's ambition is to make Chopped as big as McDonald's, selling 'fast food', but not as we know it, to 'healthy eaters' as well as the more habitually kale-averse.
"A lot of our customers would have been the people who ate a chicken roll every day for lunch, or got something from the deli counter," he said of the trend's ability to win new converts. The new wave of healthy eating might just have something for everyone, crisp sandwich eaters included.
5 sandwich alternatives
Freshii, Oaxaca Bowl
A nice balance of healthy and indulgent: crispy wonton dumplings, salsa fresca, black beans and spicy yoghurt dressing on a bed of brown rice and kale.
Borlottie, Energised Hot Pot
A filling healthy option that’s customisable to most diets. Add Asian slaw and your choice of base — quinoa, cuban rice and cauliflower rice are all available — then pick one from the protein menu which includes Teriyaki salmon, pulled beef brisket, falafel, tofu or feta cheese.
Kokoro, Sushi Wrap
The lighter alternative to a burrito: choose from fillings including spicy beef and edamame, salmon and avocado or tempura prawn wrapped in seaweed and glutinous rice.
Umi, Fatoush Salad
Every vegetarian already knows the life-restoring greatness that is a good falafel sandwich. But Umi’s salads are also worth a look — this Lebanese option includes cucumber, dry mint, rocket and tomatoes topped with olive oil, toasted bread (yes, bread) and pomegranate molasses.
Chopped, ‘Chopped BLT’ salad
For those still in sandwich withdrawal, this generously sized bowl of leafy greens, bacon, tomato fried onions and spiced mayonnaise dressing might be your fix.