Unless it’s crispy and fried, chicken sandwiches bore me to death. Maybe I’ve eaten too many of them in my life but they’re typically tough, bland and incredibly boring. Slapping on a few strips of bacon and avocado does not save a sad sandwich and I’ve simply moved on to more delicious things. But something funny happened the other day as I was flipping through my recipe files. I came across a recipe from a trip I took many years ago for a grilled chicken sandwich I ate poolside at a Four Seasons in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It wasn’t even a Thai recipe but it peaked my curiosity.
I had just spent two weeks cooking for a food and wine festival the Four Seasons Bangkok had hosted and as a treat for the chefs, they flew us to their Chiang Mai property for a little R&R. Unfortunately, my chef and I didn’t learn until we were on the plane that we were expected to cook for a cocktail party the hotel was throwing for VIP guests the next night. Oh. So much for the R&R. Not that we minded, the hotel team had been wonderful to us, it just would have been nice to know as we had no plan, no dessert in mind and certainly no ingredients pulled together. Fun, huh?
On the plane, we put our heads together and hatched a plan. What could we pull together easily, with standard kitchen ingredients and equipment that wasn’t too labor intensive so we could get in some pool time? Crème Brulee, of course. Every pastry kitchen around the world has eggs, cream, sugar and vanilla we reasoned and we’d zip it up with whatever tropical Thai ingredients we could find. We knocked out a few hotel pans worth in a few hours that first day and headed to the pool while it set. After two weeks of working my tail off in a foreign, unfamiliar kitchen and fighting wicked jet lag, I crashed hard on those lounge chairs and I repeated this ritual every day we were there. I also ate lunch at the pool bar every day and ordered the same thing: what they called a “Chicken Shawarma Pocket Sandwich.” It was delicious.
The kitchen marinated a chicken breast in a bright yellow, yogurt based mix of spices that were unlike anything I’d had before. Definitely not Thai and not even really middle eastern. I don’t know what the influences were but it was delicious and I couldn’t quite put my finger on the mix of flavors. Of course, we asked the chef for the recipe because when you hang out in kitchens with other like-minded people, that’s what you do.
The recipe he sent was unusual and it took me a little while to decipher as it called for curious things like “turmeric seeds”. I have no idea what a turmeric seed is as turmeric is a root, or rhizome. I’m sure somewhere it starts from a seed, I just don’t know where. Let’s just say in translating the recipe, I took a few liberties and made a few assumptions. The marinade is full of ingredients I don’t typically use in this way and in rather startling amounts: allspice, nutmeg and various citrus juices made bright yellow by a good dose of ground turmeric. The result is a beautifully spiced, bright yellow piece of tender chicken wrapped in a pita with tomato, onion, lettuce and cucumber. I couldn’t remember if the sandwich had a sauce so I made a simple spiced yogurt tahini combo to drizzle on top. It works very well.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: SUMMER PERFECT. Bright and fully flavored, this makes a fantastic summer lunch. If you’re tired of the usual, boring chicken sandwiches, give it a try. Colorful yellow chicken will cheer you up like nothing else. I like to pretend I’m sitting by that gorgeous Chiang Mai pool in the middle of a rice field and if I concentrate really hard, sometimes it works. Better yet, if you have big, comfy loungers and a pool invite me over. I might even bring a few of these sandwiches with me.
Seven years ago: Peanut Butter Whoopie Pies
Six years ago: Big American Flag Cake
Five years ago: Life in Southwest France
Four years ago: Spanish Sunday Lunch, Patatas Aioli
Three years ago: Tin Roof Sundae
Two years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Last year: Radish Butter
CHICKEN SHAWARMA POCKET SANDWICH inspired by The Four Seasons Chiang Mai
makes 4 sandwiches
For the marinade:
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 Tablespoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground cayenne
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon tomato paste
¼ cup diced onion (¼ of a small onion)
¾ cup plain yogurt
¼ cup fresh orange juice
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup fresh lime juice
2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 – 1 ½ pounds)
for the sauce:
½ cup plain yogurt
2 Tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
good pinch of ground cayenne
good pinch of kosher salt
good pinch of ground pepper
squeeze fresh lemon juice (about ¼ teaspoon)
2 large garlic cloves, finely minced (run through a garlic press or microplane)
for the sandwiches:
4 pita breads
onion, thinly sliced
tomato, thinly sliced
cucumber, thinly sliced
- Marinate the chicken: Butterfly the chicken breasts horizontally into 2 even pieces for 4 pieces total.
- In a blender or food processor, combine the marinade ingredients and process until smooth.
- Reserve a few Tablespoons of the marinade in a clean, small container and combine the butterflied chicken with the remaining marinade in a Ziploc bag and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight.
- For the sauce: whisk together all the sauce ingredients until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Refrigerate until needed.
- Cook the chicken: When ready to grill, remove the chicken breasts from the marinade and pat dry.
- Preheat your grill or stovetop grill pan. If grilling, cook over medium heat. If using a grill pan, heat on high until screeching hot.
- Grill until cooked through, brushing once or twice with the reserved marinade.
- Remove the chicken from the grill/grill pan and cut into ¾” wide strips.
- Build the sandwich: If you like, grill the pita bread lightly for a little additional flavor.
- On the pita bread layer the ingredients in this order – lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, chicken and drizzle with the sauce.
- Fold up to enclose the fillings and serve immediately.