As someone who loves New York, char siu (Chinese roast pork), sandwiches, and garlic bread, I couldn’t believe that for years and years people in the Catskills area of New York have been chomping happily on a sandwich that I’d never heard of: char siu garlic bread.
How was it possible that they’d kept this ingenious combination under wraps, or should I say, under bread? Why hadn’t word travelled abroad that American diners were serving thin slices of char siu on top of garlic bread, slathered with the apricot sauce that came with roast duck?
In any case, this was not the time to ponder major philosophical questions. This was the time to marinate pork neck, buy frozen garlic bread, and assemble friends. It was time to make a culinary Australian-Cantonese-Italian-American love child.
For the char siu, I used Adam Liaw’s recipe. For additional topping choices, I made an Asian-style slaw with red cabbage and carrot to go with sliced takuan (yellow Japanese pickled radish) and cucumber.
At the last minute, I added cherry tomatoes and shallots for colour. And since I didn’t have any apricot or plum sauce, I popped a jar of Dijon mustard and hoisin sauce on the table.
Now, for friends to assemble so that we could assemble sandwiches. I’d invited three of my closest friends over because my small studio apartment could only fit four of us. It only occurred to me when I had to ask my friend Jason if he could bring a chair that this was the first time I had so many people over for a meal.
These were women whose books I’d re-read over the years, who’d write about entertaining friends in their homes – presenting elaborate meals of several courses, with napkins, sometimes made for 20 guests at a time.
Here I was, living by myself for the first time in 20 years, with a $30 IKEA table beside my bed that friends were about to gather around for our version of a New York meal.
This was the time to marinate pork neck, buy frozen garlic bread, and assemble friends. It was time to make a culinary Australian-Cantonese-Italian-American love child.
Just as I’d finished cutting up the char siu, Anna, Claudia, and Jason arrived with iced tea and Japanese cheesecakes for dessert.
We shuffled to squeeze chairs between the bed and the table. At first, I felt embarrassed that we were essentially having lunch in my bedroom, but a more pressing issue was at hand.
The smell of garlic bread filled the apartment in a way that suggested it would be wise to check what was happening in the oven.
A conversation about the char siu, which Claudia and Jason had been attempting, came to a stop when I brought the bread to the table.
My friends all began assembling their sandwiches with great seriousness, as did I. There were decisions to be made which would all affect the structural integrity of our individual projects. What was the right ratio of char siu to slaw? Should the takuan be eaten as a side like a pickle, instead of on the sandwich itself?
“It’s really good!” we tried to say to each other, our mouths full from the first bites. “It’s also very messy,” I said, as I handed around a box of tissues in place of napkins.
With each bite, I understood why this sandwich existed. The meat and the bread are each sweet, salty, and fragrant at the same time in their own way. The whole thing just makes sense, even though you might think it won’t, like the way old friends can somehow just fit in one’s cramped apartment when sandwich experiments are called for.
I think the real question should be: what doesn’t garlic bread go with? What wouldn’t be better with a bit of char siu?
Make your own sausage mince and sandwich it between slices of toast with silky scrambled eggs and BBQ sauce for a monster breakfast sanga.