Adam Liaw's rules for making a super sandwich

Adam Liaw
Adam Liaw's mega banh mi is drizzled with seasoning before serving.
Adam Liaw's mega banh mi is drizzled with seasoning before serving. Photo: William Meppem

COMMENT

The history of the sandwich is well-established and also extremely stupid.

As the story goes, John Montagu the 4th Earl of Sandwich was a rich idiot and problem gambler in the 18th century who was looking for a way to spend more time at the card tables. He asked his cook to make him something he could eat while seated at a table, apparently not appreciating that directive could encompass literally all known foods.

The cook, whose name is lost to antiquity despite being the actual inventor of "the sandwich", provided Montagu with two slices of bread with meat in between. It became Montagu's favourite food, and soon the other rich idiots he played cards with started calling this extremely non-new food, a sandwich.

Montagu was a very important fellow. He was England's ambassador to France and Holland, Postmaster General, Secretary of State and the First Lord of the Admiralty. Captain Cook named the Sandwich Islands after him (now known as Hawaii) as well as Montague Island (now known as Baranguba) near Narooma on the New South Wales south coast.

Japanese sandwiches are having a moment.
Japanese sandwiches are having a moment. Photo: William Meppem

He was also famously incompetent and corrupt, and is said to have inspired the well-known saying: seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little.

Our practice of celebrating the legacies of very important rich idiots is well-established, and to this day we refer to fillings encased by bread as "sandwiches" despite that particular style of eating having been common in the Mediterranean at least centuries before, and in other parts of the world for considerably longer.

In China, the history of the sandwich goes back more than 2000 years. Shaanxi province's famous roujiamo is a baked wheat bun cut in half and filled with a mixture of meat and spices, sometimes with a fragrant chilli oil lubricating it all. It's delicious and if you haven't had one you can get them all over the world today. Even in China, however, historians cling to the almost certainly false idea that it originated in the royal palace and later spread to the lower classes… sigh.

Advertisement
Adam Liaw's Cuban sandwich.

Adam Liaw's Cuban sandwich (recipe here). Photo: Edwina Pickles

The US were latecomers to the sandwich idea, with the first reference a little over 200 years ago. These days, however, America is the leader of the sandwich world. There are regional sandwiches all over the country – New Orleans' muffuletta, Philadelphia's cheesesteak, Miami's Cubano and New England's lobster roll to name a few.

They're not without competition.

Portugal has Lisbon's bifana and Porto's Francesinha (a meat-stuffed tower covered in melted cheese and a tomato and beer-based sauce, pictured), while France has the croque-madame and the elegant jambon-beurre (ham and butter).

Japanese sandwiches are having a moment right now, too, with katsu sandos and strawberry sandoichis popping up everywhere.

Fans of the Japanese-style convenience store sandwich with its soft white bread and umami-rich fillings include David Chang, Anthony Bourdain and, well, me and just about anyone else who's spent time in Japan.

There is no doubt that sandwiches are a supremely convenient and delicious way of eating, but how to do you make a great one?

There is no simple formula, but here are some things to think about:

Adam Liaw's carbonara sandwiches. Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Adam Liaw's carbonara sandwiches in soft white rolls (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem

It's all about texture

Texture is the ballgame when it comes to sandwiches. Imagine a banh mi in buttery brioche instead of the crisp and airy short baguette that gives it its name. Or the delicately thin slices of salted cucumber in the Buckingham Palace special on crusty sourdough instead of soft sandwich bread. Neither would work at all.

There's no end to the textures that come to play in a sandwich. Soft breads are versatile and can be matched with soft fillings such as curried egg, or they can go with meaty textures in a katsu sando or hamburger (yes, a hamburger is a sandwich).

Crusty, firm breads and toasted breads (which are crusty after toasting) work well with more heavily textured fillings, such as those including salads or sauces. Think of a BLT, BLAT or French Dip.

My opinion is that brioche and sourdough aren't great sandwich breads. Both are good for their own applications, but for a sandwich, the texture is wrong.

Cover one piece of sourdough with avocado, ham or jam by all means, but two pieces together makes for a difficult mouthful.

And no, an open "sandwich" is not a sandwich.

***EMBARGOED FOR GOOD FOOD MAGAZINE, SUNDAY LIFE, SEP 6, 2020 ISSUE***
Strawberry sando. 
Cover image for Good Food Mag spring things, Sunday Life.
Photography by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Jill Dupleix's strawberry sandos need to be pressed down and firmed up in the fridge before slicing (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem

Press it

The key a good school lunch sandwich that won't fall apart in a lunch box is having the sandwich spend a bit of time with some weight on its shoulders.

My son's school sandwiches all sit on cutting board with a heavy plate on top for about 10 minutes before they go into the lunch box. This slightly compresses the bread and holds it together with the filling.

Of course, a toasted sandwich needs to be pressed. You can use a purpose-built appliance if you like, but I just toast them in a frying pan with a little butter and either a heavy saucepan or fish weight on top to press it down.

Go sweet

Sweet sandwiches get a bad rap, but they aren't just for kids.

The key to a good sweet sandwich is making sure there's a good amount of something not-sweet in there.

Peanut butter and jam works best if the peanut butter is a little salty. Singapore and Malaysia's kaya toast benefits from a hefty pat of salted butter, as does Japan's ogurapan or anmagarin.

If your butter isn't salty enough to provide that contrast, there's nothing wrong with a good pinch of salt, because…

Sandwiches need to be seasoned

Like any dish, seasoning is fundamentally important.

A banh mi is drizzled with a mixture of fish sauce and soy sauce before it's handed over the counter.

A little sprinkle of salt and pepper helps just about any savoury sandwich, unless it's already stacked with salty cured meats.

Liquid seasonings such as mayonnaise and salad dressings can turn your bread soggy, but if you're eating them straight away, they are worth throwing in there.