Vantage point

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Recreating the Marzorin Sandwich: The Non-Resident Puneri's Holy Grail

If you're a Puneri settled abroad, or even in some other Indian city, you will crave many foods associated with Pune that even outsiders readily appreciate. Be it the bakarvadi or amba barfi from Chitale, the misal from Bedekar, the sambhar from Vaishali, the thali from Shreyas, the mastani from Sujata, khichadi from Appa's canteen, or the vadapav from numerous stalls dotting the city, all these delicacies are easy to link with Pune's cultural history and culinary identity.

But there is one item that baffles outsiders, and that only those who have lived in Pune can appreciate - chicken sandwich from Marzorin (or as the signboard says Marz-O-Rin) in Camp, called Marzo for convenience. What's so great about a chicken sandwich, they wonder. You can get chicken sandwiches anywhere in the world. How different can it be?

When I was reminiscing about those sandwiches in the presence of a non-Indian friend he assumed, understandably or erroneously, that the sandwiches had some "Indian" touch. He asked me if it has shredded tandoori chicken or chicken tikka, if the sauce had some Indian spices, if some chutney was used as spread. As "Marzo" lovers know, the place does sell some kick-ass chutney sandwiches too, but the chicken sandwich does not have the chutney or any spices or components that are uniquely Indian.

So what is the Marzorin chicken sandwich like, he asked. And I described it. Shredded chicken in a mayo-like sauce, with salt and pepper, between two slices of white bread, cut into triangles along the diagonal. He was confused. That sounds very mundane, he said. You could probably get a sandwich like that at thousands of joints in the US.

Only a Puneri who has grown up eating those sandwiches at "Marzo" will understand the unique appeal of those sandwiches. That specific taste. The moistness of the chicken with the sauce. The hint of pepper. Ah, those triangular pieces of heaven!

As an amateur cook, I have made several attempts at re-creating the sandwich. After all, it is "just" a sandwich, right? Way easier that trying to recreate the complex bakarvadi. But after a dozen or so attempts, THAT combination still eludes me. The sandwiches I make are still pretty good. But they haven't come close to that Marzo taste.

A few weeks back, I was talking to a friend's friend who was also from Pune, and the conversation turned towards Marzo. She said she had been trying in vain to recreate those chicken sandwiches, as had been many of her non-resident Puneri friends. So there were others after this holy grail! I don't know why that surprised me. A targeted online search had already taken me to a blog that had discussed similar attempts. There must be hundreds, even thousands of people trying to do the same.

So I decided to write this post chronicling my efforts to recreate that sandwich. It wasn't all random trial and error. I tried my best to remember the taste (I last ate at Marzo 3 years ago), tried to break down the flavors, the textures, the physical construction. And occasionally, I had epiphanies about the sandwich when I was making something totally different.

The Bread

In my first couple of attempts, I used the regular store-bought sliced white bread. The bread, I realized, was nothing like Marzo which is also a bakery, so they bake their bread in-house. Packaged breads such as Sara Lee or Nickles are a little too moist. Marzo bread isn't dry by any means. It is soft but with only a hint of moistness, and the texture is dry enough to compliment the filling.

Now I have made bread at home a few times. But I am not accomplished enough a baker to get it perfectly right. So I experimented with freshly baked breads from grocery stores nearby. I found the "farmstyle" fresh bread from Wegmans to be the closest to the Marzo bread in terms of the balance of moisture and dryness. I am sure freshly baked bread from grocery stores in your area - Trader Joe's, Giant etc, will also work.

In keeping with the Marzo technique, you slice the crust off. Make sure you keep two slices on top of each other while doing this, so the sandwich is shaped just right.

The Chicken

My first couple of attempts were lazy. I used canned chicken. Which wasn't too bad, but had that peculiar aftertaste any canned meat has. So I decided to use fresh chicken. Following the suggestion from this blog, I tried grilling the chicken. Specifically, I used chicken breasts. Did not taste too good. But then chicken breasts are almost completely fat-free. I tried thighs. Still not the same effect.

Then I read on the Marzo website that their chicken is "thoroughly pressure cooked". Tried that with some drumsticks. That worked like a charm. At least in terms of texture, shredded meat from pressure cooked chicken drumsticks was the closest to Marzo. Even pressure-cooked thighs will do - anything except for the fat-free breasts.

The Sauce

Obviously, the toughest part. That damn sauce, which to my then-inexperienced palate, just seemed like mayo with salt and pepper. So I first tried store-bought mayo. Not even close. Did some trial-and-error with different brands of mayo, mixed butter in it, even margarine. Tried cream cheese once. The sandwiches tasted good, but nothing like Marzo.

Then I wondered if there was an "utterly butterly delicious" factor at play. If as an Indian abroad, you think that there is something uniquely tasty about Amul butter that no American brands can replicate, you are right. As Vikram Doctor explains, that flavor is the legacy of Polson butter, and was the result of using stale cream. Amul substituted that flavor by adding diacetyl and extra salt. I wondered if the margarine used by Marzorin had something similar. So I used Amul butter. It took me a few feet closer to the Marzo taste, but there were still miles to go.

The latest "breakthrough" in my quest of the Marzo chicken sandwich holy grail came about serendipitously. The wife loves Eggs Benedict, so recently, I tried to make it from scratch. Which of course, involved making Hollandaise sauce from scratch. I messed up in some way. It was not creamy the way it is supposed to be, but runny. However, the taste rang a bunch of bells. That mixture of egg yolk, lemon juice, and melted (non-Amul) butter tasted a lot like the Marzorin chicken sandwich sauce! That specific tartness combined with the egg yolk taste. So the next step is using my Hollandaise-sauce-gone-wrong with the shredded chicken.

And so the experiments continue. if any of you have been lucky enough to replicate the sandwich, let me know.