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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Best Sandwich in Seoul

The tiny kitchen at Casablanca in Haebangcheon is an alchemist’s workshop. The alchemists are Wahid and Karim Naciri, and they have managed to do something that many other restaurateurs fail at: create culinary gold from scratch.
Everything on their menu is good, but their Moroccan chicken sandwich is the best sandwich in Seoul, for a number of reasons. Wahid, 27, knows his sandwich is very good; he is a trained chef, and a deceptively large amount of work goes into creating each one. They sell out every day.
All cooking is alchemical to an extent; fry raw potatoes in hot oil and they transform from something inedible into something delicious with a completely different texture, taste, look and smell. But the Moroccan chicken sandwich at Casablanca is something different. The Naciri brothers have managed to take many disparate ingredients, apply to them their knowledge of tradition Moroccan food and various time-consuming techniques, and distill them into one glorious whole. The final product is unique in texture, taste and conception.
The sandwich-making process begins long before the sandwich is actually assembled, when Wahid preserves lemons using “sous-vide,” a French technique that cooks vacuum-sealed food slowly in a bath of temperature-controlled water. The lemons provide the basis for the chicken breast marinade. They marinate the breasts overnight in the preserved lemons, olive oil, garlic and a Moroccan spice blend called “ras el hanout.” The marinated chicken breast provides the spicy tartness for the sandwich.
The next step, and what makes the sandwich unlike anything else you can find in Seoul, is the preparation of “makooda,” a traditional Moroccan street food. Mashed potatoes are good. Fried potatoes are good. Why hasn’t anyone ever thought of frying mashed potatoes? In fact, someone has. Moroccans. Karim takes care of this step. He scoops balls of mashed potato from a big bowl, dunks them in a thin yellow batter, then plops them into hot oil. The result is hot balls of mashed potato, with a slightly crispy exterior. And yes, they go on the sandwich.
“When you make a sandwich, you can put in anything you like,” Wahid said.
Just as important as the makooda and chicken is the vehicle for them, in this case French bread from a Syrian bakery in Itaewon. Each sandwich comes on half of an almond-shaped loaf. It has many of the same characteristics of New Orleans-style French bread – it’s crunchy on the outside, but once you start eating it smashes down and molds to your hand.
The sandwich comes dressed with lettuce, tomato, olives, dill pickles and mayonnaise. The combination of crunchy bread, soft makooda and firm chicken breast is a feat of texture combination.
The Naciri brothers have cooking in their blood. Their father runs a restaurant for taxi drivers in Rabat.
“He might come some day and fix what’s wrong,” Wahid said.
He might not find much to fix.
Casablanca is located on Haebangcheon’s main street, between Family Mart and Phillies. The Moroccan chicken sandwich is 4,000 won. They open at 5 p.m. and close whenever the bread runs out.