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Cemita is a sandwich-like food that originated from the Mexican city of Puebla, once a Spanish settlement. It may look like a typical sandwich, but its several fillings are very varied from the usual beef patty. The cemita is also similar to another Mexican sandwich called the “torta,” but the former typically uses a sesame seed-topped egg roll, while the latter uses white bread.
A historian named Carlos Eduardo Benitez has speculated that the word “cemita” is related to the word “Semitic,” pointing to the Judeo-Spanish community that immigrated to Spain and Portugal during the Roman conquests. Apparently, the Semites baked a similar bread from where the bread for the sandwich was derived. The Royal Spanish Academy, on the other hand, traced the word from an old-fashioned Spanish word, “acemite,” meaning “bran.” There may be some disagreement in terms of the origin of the word, but the timeline shows that the emergence of the Pueblan sandwich overlapped with the revival of the pottery industry in the city, which could explain its early popularity as a street food. Laborers and artisans alike would have the cemita as their meal because it was cheap, convenient, and complete.
The main ingredients in between the egg roll bread include avocados, onions, cheese, and meat. The beef milanesa, which is thin and deep-fried, is one of the most popular meat choices. For the cheese, panela and quesillo are popular choices, while whole chilies, chipotle peppers in particular, are also stuffed inside the sandwich to give the cemita some intensity. These fillings make for the classic “cemita poblana.”
Of course, there are some variations of the Mexican sandwich among different regions. In the city of Sahuayo, the bread used is flat and does not have sesame seeds on top, but includes pinoncillo, or a piece of cane sugar, as its ingredient, making for a sweeter flavor. In other areas in Puebla, the sandwich has carnitas, a braised pork, instead of the beef milanesa.
The popularity of the cemita has led to its many variations, particularly in the US. Sometimes, other meats such as chicken, lamb, and veal are used to make the sandwich, or a combination of different meats may be used. American restaurants would also substitute the panela and the quesillo for mozzarella, as the Italian cheese is more widely available in stores. Some restaurants would even take short cuts and use regular sesame seed buns instead of the authentic egg rolls.