History of Rolls and Wraps

By Madhulika Dash 

Rolls and Wraps - What is their relation to the famous dolma! 

Kathi Roll. Frankie. Wrap. 

Let’s face it: When it comes to basic, delicious, the original 2-minutes food, nothing can beat the outrageously addictive rolls. Nope, not even the classic Maggi or the cuppa noodles. They are versatile, have options that match chaats, and can be had anytime of the day – for a quick snack or a hearty meal. If you were born anytime after the advent of jams, creams and chappatis, you are likely to have a truckload of tiffin stories of these cigar rolls filled with cream to jam and even mashed potatoes or leftover vegetables and chicken. 

In fact, for most of the post 50s kid, rolls were a regular tiffin box and the most workable trick to finish lunch and run to the playground.  

Of course, the actual rolls that are presented today are much more glamourised form of those rustic cigar rolls that often left a sticky palm with their fancy fillings that range from smoked chicken to tikka and even scrumptious keema. But ever wondered where and how were the rolls got invented? And who popularized it? 

Unlike the Sandwich, which is said to be designed by an Earl, the origin of rolls, says Chef Sabysachi Gorai, “ was a gift of the gentry – peasants, specifically, sometime around the middle of Medieval era, coinciding with the advent of breads like lavaash.” 

Back then, he adds, “the work culture was very different from what we saw today. Men and woman in the field had to use the day light to their maximum advantage and had to work till there was good light. This meant that there was very little time for eating in the proper manner. And thus rouse the idea of having something handy that could be held with one hand, eaten quickly without the need to rinse afterwards.” 

“And a soft Lavaash was just the wrap needed that could perfectly quilt a piece of kubide (Armenian kebab) with a little salad or rice and could be had without the need of cutleries.” The inspiration could have been the dolma – a dish made of wrapping fillings with vine leaves – which was already in existence in Armenia. And incidentally the invention of dolma was for a similar purpose: to create something exciting and tasteful for the tired hands and souls who couldn’t be bothered with table mannerism. So could it be that dolma was the inspiration behind the first wrap?  

Given the ancestry of dolma and the popular peasant wrap, it seems like a plausible case. Of course there is no denying that the roll could have changed shapes and fillings as it travelled from Armenia to different parts of the world including India, where it became a favourite of the miners – and even inspired the famous Kathi Roll, which was first served in 1932 by the Nizam Restaurant in Kolkata. 

It is said that the rolls were specially made as portable snacks for the fastidious British babu, who preferred their meat with all the fraus fraus (condiments) but would not touch it. Could it be inspired from the peasant wrap of Armenia? If you look at the similarity and technique , then yes; the wrap could have been the “spark” that led to the idea of the roll. After all, it was not uncommon to come across this Gin N Tonic partner in the mining clubs in outskirts of Kolkata. 

Another story credits it to the long, drawn street tradition of the Grant Road and all the port station, where kebabs were mostly removed and served on a bed. This made it a meal in itself. You had a choice to eat it using the bread as a plate or by wrapping the kebab after drizzling it with chutney and fresh salad like a snack – burrito style. In fact, it was a style of serving popular in the harem of the Ottoman Empire as well, who had adopted the Byzantine style of dining and had taken to eating with spoons and forks very soon. But it was while having kebabs that they made an exception and had it as a roll where two ends of the bread were taken and pinched together turning it into a wrap.  

But then how did the technique of shallow frying and the use of egg come into play, especially in case of the Kolkata Kathi roll? Could it be the Chinese influence of the spring rolls or the trade influence where bread was often warmed to compliment the cold cuts; and is the egg a Mughal influence, after all Wajid Ali Shah elevated it to a level of relish by making it a significant part of Calcutta Biryani or a indigenous twist given to another dish are questions that at best can be answered with guesses.  

But whatever be the reason for the invention of the famous roll – there is no denying that it is perhaps one of the best, most innovative and versatile portable lunch/dinner or snack available. 

Picture credit: Lavaash By Saby