FoodStuff: You can't beat a chicken sandwich

By John Lethlean
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John Lethlean, culinary critic

John Lethlean, culinary critic

I don’t know whether it was the poignancy of the occasion. I don’t even know that’s it’s not a sin to enjoy eating at a gathering the main purpose of which is to celebrate and remember the life of someone recently deceased.

But here we were, in the back yard of a friend’s family home, listening to anecdotes of a marvellous and long life… and eating the best damned chicken sandwiches ever.

This was the second such gathering of a similar nature in a month. I guess it’s my age. Both were uplifting, despite the sadness of someone’s passing. Both celebrated lives lived particularly well.

And both featured scrumptious chicken sandwiches. Point sandwiches, to be precise, as caterers all over the country will confirm; two square slices of bread, filled and cut to produce four triangles (whether one of its three sides should have a crust is debateable although personally, I think it must to be truly excellent).

By the time Santa does his thing, every caterer in Australia worth his or her salt will be muttering something along the lines of “please, not another frigging chicken sandwich.” But not me; I love them.

And it struck that, with the never-ending talk of Australian food and what might constitute it, the classic chicken sanger is quite possibly a viable candidate for the great national dish. It’s a staple that stands service at everything from bah mitzvahs (presumably) to birthdays, picnics on rugs to I-can-spend-more-than-you corporate tents at the races, weddings and, yes, funerals.

It has the kind of trans-demographic and particularly broad age group reach most advertisers can only dream of.

Moreover, its ubiquity in no way compromises its inherent excellence. A good chicken sandwich is an astoundingly good thing; even a modest chicken sandwich is pretty good, but why go modest when brilliance is so easily attained?

I hope there are no more gatherings to remember the lives of friends’ parents any time soon, but with Christmas and summer in the air, my guess is that a lot of chicken sandwiches will pass under most of our noses in the coming months anyway.

I’ve always been pretty happy with just about any decent quality fresh bread, left over roast chook, chopped flat-leaf parsley, good commercial mayonnaise and seasoning. A version of this with poached breasts keeps one child afloat at school. And, as with most things, its amazing the difference a quality salt flake can make by both bringing out the flavours of your main ingredients but also adding a bit of textural interest.

But what of those mysterious, sublime back yard tributes to our friend’s mum?

“You don’t eat them (chicken sandwiches) every day so if you’re going to eat one, have a bloody good one,” says Min, a former caterer and a woman who has made a lot of chicken sandwiches in her time, but possibly none better than those she made in tribute to her late mum.

“I’m twitchy around this time of year,” she concedes. “I’d love to be out there with a couple of thousand rounds.”

Okay. Min’s sandwiches go like this.

First, properly seasoned, skin-on, roasted chickens, and the better the chicken, etc etc.

Allow to cool, tear off the meat and chop, but not too finely. Include some skin (this will annoy dieticians but improve your sandwich).

“I don’t think there’s a comparison between a home made mayo and the bought stuff if you can be bothered,” says Min. Making mayonnaise is not hard, but it probably depends on the quantity of sandwiches you’re making or the quantity of time you have on your hands.

Now the interesting bit; she mixes about 33 per cent natural yoghurt with home made mayo (about 50/50 with commercial). And a little lemon juice. And black pepper. Into the mix go finely chopped gherkins, capers and spring onion, although she concedes spring onion, parsley and chives are interchangeable.

Only at this point would you consider salt.

The bread, she says, must be either multi grain or white, sandwich-slice, not toast. And not wholemeal.

Obviously, the better quality bread you can buy, the better the outcome.

Melt butter and spread one slice only; top the other slice with chicken mix to about one centimetre and make sure the mix extends to all four sides; sandwich.

You’re almost there.

An electric knife is entirely kosher for point sandwiches and, when they’re cut, you may like to stand them up on their crust side (there should be a crust side, she agrees) and trim the “woody” ends so that, technically, they are no longer perfect triangles.

But that’s optional.

“A chicken sandwich needs to make a statement,” says the expert. “There are very bland sandwiches in the world and they’re disappointing, particularly if your expectations are up.”

Couldn’t agree any more.

Here’s to a great chicken sandwich. Here’s to Min’s mum. I think she’d be proud.


From a collection of John’s food writing 2005-2008.

Follow John Lethlean and Necia Wilden on Twitter as they eat and drink their way around Australia

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December 12th, 2009
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