The Chili-Chicken Sandwich: Holding on to a Taste from Laos

After a full day of traveling in and around Luang Prabang, we’d walk into town to visit the night market, a huge, colorful market with so many vendors and so many scarves and t-shirts and embroidered throws that after a couple of turns around it my head would spin and we’d head for the food stalls.

Our first stop was “the vegetarian buffet,” where a young woman stood watch over two stacks of shallow soup plates, one set just a bit larger than the other, and through smiles and a lot of pointing to dishes and signs, explain that you buy a plate, large or small, and then fill it as high as you’d like with as much of whatever you’d like.  There were noodles and greens and dumplings and rice of various kinds and tofu and Laos beer in tall-neck bottles.  Plates full, we’d  find spots at the long communal tables, dig in and try making friends with the people around us.  We loved being surrounded by so many people and so much motion and such good food, food that was so irresistible that even after our piled-high plates we’d wander around nibbling sticky rice in banana leaves and sipping fruit shakes .  And then we’d buy our sandwiches.

The sandwich ladies were set up at the entrance to the market, three of them in a row with no other way to tell whose sandwich was best, but to taste them all, and we did. (In case you’re going, the stand furthest from the entrance won our best-of-the-fair blue ribbon.) 

Each woman had her supplies in front of her and would start putting together a sandwich only when the order came in; no grab-and-go here.  The process would start with Miss Sandwich slicing a bamboo-skewered grilled chicken breast into long strips.  Next would come the bread, a soft, almost squishy half-baguette, not crusty, not crackly, not even very tasty, but just right for this sandwich in which its job is to hold everything together and give the chili sauce a comfortable home.  She’d open the bread wide and place it on the palm of her left hand and then get to work slathering both sides with mayonnaise and then hot chili paste, layering the slices of chicken, rounds of tomato and onion and long slices (sometimes wedges) of cucumber, tucking in some lettuce and then finishing it all off with a prolonged squeeze of sweet chili sauce.  Then, the final touch (one Joshua doesn’t replicate): she’d close the sandwich with a rectangle of paper torn from a magazine and then secure the whole bundle with a rubber band. 

With two sandwiches in my carry-all and another beer or milkshake, we’d walk back to the hotel to have our “dessert”.  One night, we ate our sandwiches at the market and we didn’t think they were as good.  The next day, pondering the sandwich let-down, we figured it out:  the in-place sandwiches lacked the 15-minute seep-in time provided by the walk back to the hotel!  Of course, at home, once the sandwich is made, neither of us can bear to wait 15 minutes for the bread to soak up the chili sauce and we never tie the sandwich with magazine strips and rubber bands, another soak-up helper.

As for the chili sauces, we’re using Huey Fong Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce (17oz)sriracha over the mayonnaise and Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce 10 Fl. OzThai sweet chili sauce over everything.  It’s not authentic, but it’s just as messy — and so, so good.

Helene's sandwich fixings PS:  We seem to have started a tiny trend.  When we were in Paris over the holidays, Joshua made one of his Laos specials for our friend Helene, she of Parisian burger fame.  Helene fell in love with the sandwich immediately, went out and bought all the ingredients and then called The Kid to come over for a sandwich-making demo.  They made the sandwich together and later that day he got an email from Helene saying:  “Thanks for the lesson on how to make the sandwich, now I need a lesson on how to eat it!”  It’s that messy factor again.

PPS:  As you can see, Helene went the semi-homemade route.  Chez Greenspan, we’ve taken to cooking six chicken breasts on Sunday, so we’ve got a supply for the week.  And because it’s not grilling weather, we cook them quickly and simply in the oven.  I rub the breasts with a little olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper (not necessary at all, but why not?) — sometimes I even marinate them in the oil and juice.  Then I lay them out on a baking sheet lined with parchment, nonstick foil or a Silpat 11-5/8-by-16-1/2-Inch Nonstick Silicone Baking Matsilicone baking mat, and bake them in a 375 degree F oven for between 15 and 20 minutes, or until they’re cooked through.  It’s the easiest way I know to cook chicken breasts that are perfect for sandwiches and salads.

Dorie Greenspan