You've got to hand it to sandwiches

It could be argued that a great sandwich is a balancing act: somehow or another it has to be greater than the sum of its parts.

You can't beat a classic grilled cheese.
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"Come on, I'll make you a sandwich," I say to my sister. It's 3am; we're jet-lagged and she's peckish. Over the years, I've constructed hundreds of sandwiches for my sister, a dedicated and uncomplaining casualty of my kitchen experiments. As usual, I have no idea what I'm going to make until we begin rooting through the fridge, opening and sniffing the contents of jars that haven't been touched since the last time we cooked together. I suppose it could be argued that a great sandwich is a balancing act; to make one that's greater than the sum of its parts usually requires some combination of thoughtfulness, improvisation, luck and common sense. Sensuous raw materials, a full fridge and an interesting pantry are helpful. But they're not necessary.

In these ventures, meat is optional; cheese is not. We examine the cheese drawer in quizzical silence; the prospects are dim but we're undeterred. As I ease a rubbery puck of Babybel cheese from its waxy red cocoon, wondering blithely whether it will melt in a hot oven, I realise it's been at least 15 years since I've eaten one. My sister's snack ends up being an exercise in desperate measures: a quesadilla-like pseudo sandwich using Arabic bread, Babybel cheese, shreds of leftover Cornish game hen, onion confit of questionable origin and a two-minute pico de gallo.

After the last crumb had been cleared, I thought about making one for myself. But a sandwich made for one is a finite entity (and by the same token, a tasty but mean sandwich is a very mean thing indeed), which means you can't count on there being seconds. And though many middling sandwiches are similar for all intents and purposes, a sublime sandwich is a sort of culinary lost chord. Call it excessively sentimental, but sandwiches are ephemeral - unless you get yours from a drive-through window.

A 2002 survey showed the average American will have eaten 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before graduating from high school. I had better luck: our cafeteria at Choueifat Abu Dhabi was catered by Lebanese Flower Bakery, an established local bakery that specialises in mana'ish, large flatbreads folded over rustic fillings. Its cheese version is nothing short of sublime. I guess old habits die hard, because I still get occasional and intense cravings for those sandwiches.

In a recent e-mail to a friend travelling through Heathrow for the first time and seeking advice on what to grab for lunch during a short layover: "Run, don't walk, to Pret a Manger. You won't be sorry you did, but if you are, it's probably because I'm not at all objective. I have been sentimentally eating the same sandwich at Pret for almost 13 years. By now, I've been doing it for so long that I have no idea if it's even any good; it's just part of my cellular make-up. But I suspect it is good and I think you should go."

Sandwiches might just be the most symptomatic food of our time. Could there be a greater symbol of our individualism-obsessed generation, considering how much we love brandishing our ice cream cones (replete with custom mix-ins) and our architectural, personalised lattes? In some ways, the rising popularity of food on the go has also represented the decline of family-style meals and a more communal approach to sharing food. But the appeal of the single serving unit is no great mystery - and sandwiches are portable, versatile, sometimes deceptively economical and can be tailored, right down to the condiments and the temperature of their contents.

A woman running the counter at one of my favourite cafes once told me that selling baked goods was akin to running a pet adoption service. The brownies, cakes, muffins and cinnamon rolls for which the place is justly famous are displayed behind glass, artisanally made and lacking uniformity, some bigger or crustier or more heavily iced than others. Some patrons want to participate in the selection process, just because they can. But a sandwich shop capitalises on the concept of variety and amplifies it exponentially.

Almost everyone loves cookies and pizza, but the specifics are divisive: do you prefer your cookies crispy or chewy? With chunks or chips? Dark or milk chocolate? And I get a headache just thinking about the way pizza aficionados argue over the merits of different types (and the fact that so many people discard the delicious crusts). Cue sandwiches. I'll have it my way. You have it yours. And though I maintain a general policy not to eat while walking, in part because I hate eating around people who aren't eating too, I had the greatest sandwich of my life (lamb's tongues with pickles and an intoxicating cloud of garlic mayonnaise) a few days ago, standing on the curb outside Barbar, a popular chain specialising in Lebanese sandwiches, mana'ish and shawarma. In the Arab world, bread is used as a utensil as well as for sandwiches. Arabic sandwich bread in restaurants is always white; wholewheat Arabic bread, which is sold for home consumption, doesn't have the gluten to preserve the wonderful elasticity that makes it so compulsively eatable. I bake Arabic bread at home, following Claudia Roden's recipe from A Book of Middle Eastern Food, and I never tire of watching the flattened circles of dough puff into dusty orbs in the oven.

Last summer, before a long journey, a friend who hates to cook made me a grilled cheese sandwich. She heavily buttered slices of supermarket bread and added a thin smear of mayo, slices of Monterey jack cheese, juicy discs of sweet tomato, and a showering of salt and pepper. With a spatula, she pressed it into a hot pan foaming with butter, flipped it, waited for the cheese to turn gooey and golden around the edges, then wrapped it in a piece of foil and packed it into my handbag. When I reached into my bag two hours later, airborne and in search of gum, I found the neat package stowed in there. By then the sandwich was cold and the bread soaked through with the juice of the tomato. But it tasted like the Spanish classic tapa pan con tomate on steroids, and it may have been the best thing I'd ever eaten.

It's hard for me to imagine a more satisfying lunch than a really great sandwich, and I am rarely happier than when a homemade sandwich is set before me. I've heard it said that a fantastic New York-style deli would be a welcome addition to the UAE lunchtime restaurant delivery scene, and perhaps that's true. And though a good sandwich is the best thing to happen since - and to - sliced bread, the best one in town is whichever one I happen to be eating.