A day in the life of a Mumbai sandwichwallah

If you think your job in the food industry is tough – check out the day, 364 days a year, of a a Mumbai sandwichwallah! Sanjay Singh has been selling sandwiches on the streets of Mumbai for 18 years. Follow his day from fresh chutneys at dawn to a 9.30pm finish.

Like most sandwichwallahs in the city, he assembles exactly what the customer desires – easily a few hundred combinations drawn from the handful of ingredients he has bought and barely processed. No restaurant affords the level of customisation to a snack, or meal, as a Mumbai rasta sandwichwallah.

He has 16 sandwiches on his menu, but is happy to customise each one of them to his patrons’ tastes. Sanjay Singh will put only beetroot and cheese in one; butter and powdered masala (salt, black salt, cardamom, cumin, and coriander seeds ground together) in another; tomatoes and garlic chutney for people who want that mix; and capsicum and butter for a few others.

Kala Ghoda-based sandwich maker Singh started out working at his elder brother’s sandwich stall 18 years ago, as soon as he arrived from Benares. He was 12 then and the menu listed two items: vegetable sandwich and vegetable toast. They served about 100 sandwiches a day. Today, the daily average is 350 sandwiches and toasties, almost each one minutely customised.

The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in February is boom time; they sell 700 items a day during the event. Singh, who has since taken over the running of the stall from his brother, works with three other people on any given day. He calls them “mere bhai”, but that’s an ambiguous description. In truth, they are cousins, nephews, or people from his gaon (village).

Singh wakes up every morning at 5am, makes the chutneys for his sandwiches and travels from his home in Bhayander to Kala Ghoda where he sets up his stall at 9am. Before he opens shop, he buys vegetables from the Bora Bazar market in Fort. The breadwallah (who also supplies the ketchup) and coalwallah visit his stall daily to provide the remaining supplies.

Singh emphasises the importance of a good workstation. The cutting surface must be at the right height, and there should be enough storage room for veggies and bread as well as the leftover trimmings that will be given away to street kids at the end of the day. All the ingredients must always be at arm’s length. A folding table hinged to the side of the stall is part of the assembly line. Singh slides the sandwiches to his co-worker Gopal Singh, who fans the coal burner, flips the chimta, and stacks the ready-to-eat toasts.

Like most sandwichwallahs in Mumbai, the Singhs are deeply loyal to their brand of bread. Only Wibs is good enough for them. Britannia bread tends to have holes in it and is too tangy, according to Sanjay Singh. However, his “bhais” and he don’t eat their own sandwiches for lunch. Singh’s nephew comes to the stall with their dabbas (lunch boxes) at around lunch time and works at the stall for the rest of the day.

There is a small steel stool behind the work area, and the bhais take turns for their lunch breaks. When they need to use the loo, they go to Jehangir Art Gallery and buy a token. They leave for home at 9.30pm after Singh stores the stall near a friend’s shop in a nearby lane; he gets to bed at midnight at the earliest.

The stall is open 364 days a year…..

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