As an American expat living in Bali for the past 26 years, November's approach brings childhood cravings derived from my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. I often feel gratitude just for being alive and having a special day to concentrate those feelings completes an annual cycle. Wrapped in taste memories of traditional Thanksgiving foods, a cozy warmth fills my body along with a sense of well-being and rolling stomach growls.
But probably the most cherished memories were built on the mornings after the big day when my family would make sandwiches from the leftovers to devour for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner. We never tired of these. They were precious, knowing the gravy would run out first, then the stuffing, but we could always open another can of cranberry sauce for the remaining turkey.
American and Canadian expats in our Bali community often band together to create a tropical version of this traditional Western holiday. One time my friend Victoria brought her Webber barbecue over and we smoked turkey for a dozen of us under heliconia, gardenia, and jasmine bushes. A light warm rain blessed the afternoon and I still have a photo of Victoria tending the bird holding a purple umbrella. She'd lift the lid to baste the bird sending wafts of earthy smoke into the air to marry with the sweet blossom scents.
While the turkey slowly bronzed, friends arrived carrying pumpkin pies, candied sweet potatoes, a grandmother's favorite bread stuffing laced with sausage and speckled with wild rice, green beans studded with toasted almonds, and garlic mashed potatoes.
Once the perfectly roasted bird was in the kitchen to oversee the gravy making ritual, Victoria and I snuck pieces of succulent browned skin, making sure our theft wouldn't be apparent when the bird was presented to the diners. Licking smokey fat from my fingers, I dreamily said to Vic, "For my birthday one year I'd like the whole skin of a roasted turkey." A few years later she invited me over for a surprise...as much skin as I could eat from a bird fresh out of the oven. I was in heaven.
Sadly these extravaganzas ended one year when the government put high taxes on imported food. Our $35, six kilo Butterball turkey now cost over $100. Thanksgiving in Bali wouldn’t be the same but still when November rolls around those Thanksgiving cravings stubbornly arise.
In response, Victoria decided to raise organic, free range turkeys for us, but $500 later she gave the remaining birds away in hopes that someone else would be more successful. They were delightful animals but high maintenance. With mystery turkey deaths and expensive trips to the vet on a motorcycle, our dreams of roast turkey Thanksgivings evaporated in a flurry of feathers.
This year however, the cravings coincided with a pre-planned trip to Thailand. Victoria had business in Bangkok. She said, "Why don’t we go to Bangkok together and then take the night train to Vientiane. There's a Joma Bakery Café there and they serve Turkey Dinner Sandwiches this time of year". Hmmm.....memories of those morning-after sandwiches tickled my taste buds. I was tempted but I prefer Luang Prabang to Vientiane. I quickly checked flights. The price was right so I booked two Air Asia tickets from Bangkok to Luang Prabang after we checked with Joma that they did indeed have our favorite sandwiches available when we planned to be there. Owned by Canadians, they start making them in October to coincide with Canadian Thanksgiving and keep them on the menu through December for Christmas.
Flying to Luang Prabang for turkey sandwiches may seem a bit extravagant but it wasn’t a new concept for me. My late husband and I would sometimes drive two hours to eat Sunday brunch at Mama’s on Washington Square in San Francisco, California. On a sunny morning we’d load our bicycles into our van and happily make the drive, knowing the breakfast delights that awaited us. Then we’d work off the calories by cycling around The City.
Victoria and I both love Luang Prabang, another good cycling town. We’ve have been there several times. We checked into a favorite guesthouse. Vic got a room in the old family house facing the Buddhist temple with its 4 a.m. drum beat to wake the sleeping monks and the 6 o'clock reminder that it’s time for them to walk silently in a blaze of orange, single file, through the streets for alms, the food they rely on to daily sustain them. Vic says the drum goes right through her, bringing a smile to her face before falling back to sleep. I prefer the garden rooms in the back..a few decibels removed from the drum vibrating the walls.
There are two Joma Bakery Cafes in this royal city and our favorite is in a fine old wooden Lao house that faces the Nam Khan River on a tree-lined street. You can eat outside on the verandah or upstairs in air conditioning. We chose the comfortable seats outside under an umbrella and anticipated the arrival of Joma's famous Turkey Dinner Sandwiches. We'd come so far. Would they be as good as we remembered them?
As the waiter slid white ceramic plates onto the table, my salivary glands went wild. There between two slices of lightly toasted brown bread, slathered in the perfect amount of mayo, nestled succulent pieces of moist turkey meat, topped with sweet tart cranberry sauce, chunks of stuffing suffused with a hint of celery, and a side bowl of sage gravy to slather, dunk, or otherwise embellish this food fit for the gods. The first bite brought moans of joy, a relaxation of the shoulders, and a quick desire for the next bite. I had to pace myself or the experience would be over too soon. This was the sandwich from my childhood.
With only four nights in Luang Prabang we managed to eat this delicacy four times including take away for the airport departure lounge. We left this peaceful town that always enchants us with the desire to return once again to mediate in its temples, walk the colonial streets, sit mesmerized by the meeting of the Nam Khan with the Mekong Rivers and eat Turkey Dinner Sandwiches.
Susan Tereba is an American author living in Bali, Indonesia. You can check out her personal blog here, check out her book on Amazon, watch her TEDx Talk, or follow her on Instagram.