Any way you slice it

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Any way you slice it

Ketchup or mustard? Crispy or soft? Hold the mayo?

The art of sandwich-making starts from simple questions like these. Almost anything put between two pieces of bread is a sandwich. A fried egg sitting amid a couple slices of plain white bread? A simple sandwich. Meat and gravy, french fries and vegetables with lots of sauce inside a baguette? A gourmet sandwich.

Sandwiches are staple foods in most Western countries. That's why many foreigners look for good sandwiches here with the fervor King Arthur looked for the Holy Grail. Trouble is, that search often becomes a hellish trail.

Although Koreans are fusion-happy at the moment, not too many kimchi sandwiches are popping up. And thank God Korea's sandwich purveyors haven't gone as far as Japan's, where you can find oddball concoctions like strawberry, cream and potato sandwiches. If you limit your hunt to corner bakeries and convenience stores, all you'll find are the shrink-wrapped numbers, which commit the following sandwich no-nos:

1) Bad bread. Usually too soft; any softer and it would be cake. Or extra-crumbly because it's been in the cooler too long. Or so hard that the first bite will you give you a split lip.

2) Too much mayonnaise. Or a sloppy blend of mayonnaise and ketchup. Or just a slab of butter that sits there like a life raft.

3) Shredded cabbage, instead of iceberg lettuce, which is too expensive here. And no veggies except uninspiring pickles.

4) Synthetic ham. What Koreans call ham is a pink mass of mystery meat no pig would claim.

5) Did you say, cheese? Only the processed, sliced variety. Swiss? That's a whistling sound.

Yes, it's a challenge finding good sandwiches here, and if anyone does find a good place, he's a hero. And the word gets around fast. To be fair, the quality of sandwiches offered in Korea has improved dramatically, thanks to the growing numbers of Koreans who appreciate good ones.

The best sandwich joints in town - both old and new - serve sandwiches of various kinds and styles. But all of them, besides dodging the aforelisted no-nos, have a couple of things in common: They serve up sandwiches that leave you satisfied, and their fare is available during limited hours to guarantee freshness and flavor. Fast food a sandwich may be, but a great-tasting sandwich is like love. It should be made slowly.


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Mr. Montagu's magnificent idea

At initial chomp, a grand sandwich has a texture that is both crispy and soft. A grandwich delights the palate with a gamut of textures: tender, crunchy, juicy. When you chew it, the moistness of the bread, the freshness of the vegetables and the juiciness of the meat strike an optimal balance.

A grandwich is hearty and wholesome enough to leave you blissfully satisfied after a final swallow. And it must be simple to hold. After all, the sandwich was born in the 18th century when Britain's Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, ordered his cooks to make him something he could handle easily as he gambled. Thus a grandwich, whether cut or not, has to be eminently graspable. Fancy ingredients, such as caviar or fois gras, are fine, but sandwiches shouldn't cost an arm and a leg. A sandwich is, after all, just a sandwich. It should be stored in cool - never cold - temperatures. At the freezing point, the juices and fat congeal. That's a blandwich.




Spreading the word - and the fixings

1 - Watch those temperatures. Don't put a sandwich in a microwave unless you crave a mushy mess. Similarly, never refrigerate a sandwich.

2 - Do a bread check. A sandwich's bread must have the right combination of moisture and air, and have a crust that's memorable.

3 - Lay it on with care. A sandwich spread should never spill over the sides. Apply evenly for taste and to help keep the ingredients together.

4 - Go green. The veggie that's sine qua non for a great sandwich? Iceberg lettuce. Organically grown, please.

5 - Ditch the beige squares wrapped in plastic. Smoked, cooked or uncooked, the meat has to be "real."

6 - Dump the orange squares wrapped in plastic. Sliced, grated or melted, the cheese has to be "real."


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Plastic I



Location: In front of the parking entrance of Chunghak Golf Range near Dosan Park in Sinsa-dong.

Telephone: 02-3446-4646 Takeout available

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Price: 11,000-13,500 won

Formerly a fashion designer, the owner Cho Eun-sook recommends her Mozzarella Sandwich and Philadelphia Steak Sandwich. The Mozzarella Sandwich is a jaw-strainer - between its baguette slices are hefty chunks of soft mozzarella cheese and rich tomatoes. If you want a wholesome plate of mozzarella cheese and tomato salad between fresh bread, this is it.

The Philly sandwich doesn't lose any points for girth either. Packed appealingly in the rye-wheat baguette are heaps of grilled sirloin beef topped with sauteed onions, mushrooms and melted cheese. All sandwiches at Plastic are served with crinkle-cut french fries and homemade pickles.


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Harue



Location: A five minute walk from the M-net building in Cheongdam-dong.

Telephone: 02-546-9981 Takeout available

Hours: Noon-10 p.m.

Price: 10,000 won

Coffee-lovers know that the cafe Harue (means "one day" in Korean) serves great, strong coffee. But not many people know about the cafe's sandwiches. The owner Ju Su-an insists on uncompromising standards of quality and taste, so his specialty, the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, comes the same way every time; always simple, but delicious in that homemade, BLT way. The bread is toasted on the hot plate not too long, not too quick, the bacon cooked crispy just right, the tomato fresh and juicy - just right. It's an all-American classic, if you overlook the gratuitous fried egg they add in.

The ham-and-cheese sandwich is also filling, keeping you happy all the way to the end of the day. Slices of honeyed ham and Emmenthal cheese, a type of Swiss cheese, inside the toasted white bread is simple but extremely tasty. A tangy mustard brings out the taste of the ham and melted cheese.

The coffee is a steep 8,000 won ($6) a cup, but you can get free refills until your teeth rattle.


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The Franchises

The two main sandwich chains in Korea, Paris Baguette and Subway, offer basic sandwiches at affordable prices. Paris Baguette can be found on almost every major street in Seoul. The bakery puts out various kinds of sandwiches between 10 a.m. and noon. The sandwiches are typically gone at varying times in the afternoon depending on the bakery's location. The best varieties are the "mixed" sandwiches - ham and iceberg lettuce on wheat bread, and egg salad on white bread, both sold in transparent cases. The overmoist bread breaks a sandwich rule, but the fresh ingredients make up for it. Paris Baguette makes the best croissants in town, but not all serve them as sandwiches. A warning: Some of these shops are owned by the company's headquarters, and keep up certain standards, while others are owned by individuals who bought franchises and thus are of uneven quality. The outlet nearest City Hall is a high-standard shop. A telltale sign that a store is individually owned is when it offers "fusion" sandwiches with clearly clashing ingredients.

There are 25 Subway stores scattered around the capital, but it's hard to find one unless you live or work near a university. The colorful menus look inviting, but don't be disappointed when the sandwich assemblers count the number of sheets of onion-skin-thin roast beef and are reluctant to give you extra olives. And watch out, they squeeze the mayonnaise bottles like grapefruits.


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Chosun Deli



Location: The basement of the Westin Chosun hotel near City Hall.

Telephone: 02-317-0359 Takeout available

Hour: 11 a.m.-6 a.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. weekends

Price: 10,000 won

The manager, Ashley Cheeseman (his real name, honest) prepares sandwiches best suited for Western palates, and he consistently runs out of them by 3 p.m. every day. His Grilled Ancient Roman Sandwich is made of what Mr. Cheeseman calls a truly Italian inspiration: prosciutto ham, garlic, fresh basil leaves, sliced onions, tomatoes and the indispensable mozzarella cheese. Another popular and healthful choice: the Grilled Chicken Breast Sandwich, prepared warm with marinated chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, avocado and black olive spread, grilled with cheddar cheese on an Italian baguette.

All recipes are created by Mr. Cheeseman, who is from Britain and worked as a chef in Switzerland for 10 years. Mr. Cheeseman imparted some sandwich sagacity to the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition: "Combining flavors is not an easy job; one ingredient should not overpower the others and the spread should bring out the flavor of a tasty sandwich. You've got a whole variety of foods that are put between the bread. The care and attention to create a wholesome dish can go into a sandwich. For instance, I grill chicken so that the meat absorbs the flame's flavor, and I use various spreads, such as cream cheese, avocado or olive papanade, to create a taste while keeping the texture of the bread."

Mr. Cheeseman says the key factors are a perfect balance of flavors and the texture of the sandwich when it hits the back of your mouth. A sandwich should taste good at the base of the tongue rather than the tip to ensure a good aftertaste, he says.

His clients are mostly expats, foreigners and traveling CEOs, who have spread his skills by word of mouth. New additions were added this month.


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The Bar



Location: Less than a 10 minute walk from the Kyobo building in downtown Seoul. From the American Embassy, walk toward the fire station and make a right at the intersection toward Jong-no street; it's on the right side in the middle of the octopus restaurant street.

Telephone: 02-738-9236 (English service available) Takeout available

Hours: Noon-3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Sandwiches are available during the daytime only Price: 5,800-7,200 won

Here is a lunch joint by day and a watering hole by night. Only three kinds of sandwiches at a time are offered, and changes in the menu come monthly. Through March, you can order the ham and tomato with mustard and mayonnaise on white bread, the salmon, sour cream and rosemary on a baguette pannini, or the roast chicken with apricot chutney on ciabatta bread. Every ingredient is fresh and clearly displayed behind the bar, and you can see the sandwiches prepared right before your eyes. The pannini arrives just in time from the pannini grill. The roast chicken sandwich features bread that is warm and crispy, meat that's tender and moist, and apricot chutney that's ripe and sweet. Bacon bits, onions, black olives, celery and lettuce all come together like an expensive gourmet chicken salad with warm bread on the side.

Owned by five women - four Korean and one New Zealander - The Bar proves that small can be modern, clean and elegant. The atmosphere features the latest in soft jazz recordings. Fine wines are available and fresh coffee is always perking. Professionals working in nearby offices make up the bulk of the clientele. The owners, who all enjoy traveling overseas, meet regularly to exchange ideas, hatch new recipes and confront problems. "We pay attention to every detail to make our sandwiches taste superb," says Min Hyun-kyung, 38. "Our sandwiches attract real gourmets; that's the best compliment we could ever get!" Ms. Min picks up some lettuce. "Look, we use an organically grown variety, not mass-produced stuff that tastes like watery paper."

The owners of the Bar just opened an Italian restaurant, Bar Dopo, near the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul. (02-583-5831).


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Parish



Location: A 10 minute walk from the Galleria Department Store in Apgujeong-dong. It's right behind a pet shop on Rodeo Street called Lovely House

Telephone: 02-3444-0250~1 (Korean service only) Takeout available

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (Last order at 10 p.m.)

Price: 6,900-8,900 won

"We wanted to give our customers time and space to enjoy sandwiches as a real, slow food," says Oh Jeong-yeon, one of the three Oh sisters (Na-yeon and Sun-min are the others) who own and run the business. Located in the tony Cheongdam-dong district, Parish offers "slowly made" sandwiches served with Italian tableware, soft lights, mellow music and comfortable seats. Although most of the sandwiches here are suited for Korean palates, that is, soft and mild, the more pungent Emmenthal sandwich is everyone's favorite.

The Emmenthal is "a plate of Europe," Ms. Oh says. It consists of honeyed ham, tomato slices, two kinds of Swiss cheese - bitter and mild - inside thick white bread. But when the plate arrives, the rich aroma of olive oil exults taste buds; the sandwich is buried in heaps of extra-fresh green rugola leaves dotted with black olives. For 1,000 won more, you can have a small plate full of steaming french fries, made from fresh potatoes. To keep up with the demand for the rugola salad, the Oh sisters often have to buy out the local produce market's entire weekly shipment.

Another favorite at Parish is Wich Hawaii, made of honeyed ham, pineapple, tomato, grated Antonio's cheese and organic lettuce on white bread. A second Parish near City Hall will open this month.


by Ines Cho

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