If there's one dish that's most recognisable from South East Asia, it's satay. The superstar of South East Asian street-food, these skewers of barbecued meats are incredibly delicious served hot off the grill. Infused with smoke, satays are so popular they're even served in first-class and business-class cabins of the regional carriers such as Singapore and Malaysia airlines.
A brief history of satay
The home of satay (aka sate) is Indonesia, but no one can pinpoint exactly when it appeared. Some food writers believe it arrived with Arab spice traders who barbecued their meats on skewers for shawarma. Others believe its etymology is derived from the Hokkien words "sa teh", meaning three pieces; in the absence of historical evidence, I'm inclined to think this is pure conjecture. Other writers have suggested the word comes from the Tamil word "sathai", meaning flesh, though this also appears unfounded.
Whatever the provenance, the variations of sate in Java and in other parts of the Indonesian archipelago are pretty mind-boggling. Sate buntel, for instance, is made with minced goat and wrapped in caul fat to resemble a fat sausage. It's served with a sauce of kecap manis mixed with birdseye chillies and shallots. Over in Bali, minced seafood mixed with grated coconut and spices is moulded around stalks of lemongrass to create sate lilit. And in Sumatra, sate Padang is made with boiled beef sliced into cubes for grilling and served with a sauce thickened with rice flour. Just about every kind of meat is used for making sate including turtle, though this is now technically against the law.
Although there are these scores of varieties of sate in Indonesia, the most popular export is the version served with peanut sauce. Some food historians suggest it crossed over to Singapore, Malaysia and gradually worked its way up to Thailand in the 19th century. Whatever the timeline, it became so loved that a motley collection of satay hawkers along Hoi How Road in Singapore back 1940s came to be known as the Satay Club. Today, a new incarnation has opened at Gardens by the Bay.
Over in Malaysia, satay fans flock to the town of Kajang for some of the best satay in the country. According to local food writer Alice Yong, a Javanese satay seller, Tasmin Sakiban, pioneered the business back in 1917. Not long after, other Javanese satay vendors materialised and the town became synonymous with the dish. Served with a spicy peanut sauce, wedges of onion and cucumber as well as ketupat - a kind of rice cake cooked in palm leaf casings - this form of satay became the classic we love today.
The secret to making a great satay, part 1: the marinade
While there are quick permutations to this classic and relatively easy-to-make dish, it pays to give yourself a couple of days to prepare it really well.
The secret to a great satay lies in the marinade, so I marinate my meat overnight to lock in the flavours, and make the peanut sauce the following day.
I use chuck for beef satay and thigh meat with the skin on for chicken satay. The meat is cut against the grain and each piece should weigh no more 10 grams and be no more than 3cm wide. Using chicken with the skin on has the bonus of the fat melting away, leaving a crunchy crisp skin known as garing in Bahasa Malaysia. I prefer to grind my own spices, though you can of course use store-bought. Once the meat is marinated, thread three or four pieces flat on soaked bamboo sticks (originally the skewers were made from the stems of coconut leaves called lidi).
Satay is traditionally cooked on a special grill that's similar to those used for yakitori. It's usually filled with slow-burning charcoal and its embers given a boost now and then with a fan made of pandanus leaves called kipas satay; a regular barbecue works a treat too. While grilling, it pays to baste the meat lightly with oil; the best satay is brushed with coconut oil. Even though the morsels of meat are small, it's best to cook them over medium-high heat for 4-5 minutes to develop the charry scent.
The secrets to making a great satay, part 2: the peanut sauce
The other half of a great satay is the peanut sauce that complements the smoky flavours of the meat. Made properly, it's quite addictive, filled with deep, spicy flavours and balanced with sweet-salty notes. While freshly roasted, crunchy peanuts are fundamental, fresh lemongrass, galangal and ginger blended with spices make it really shine. Tamarind is often added for acidity; in Malaysia and Singapore, Nonya cooks often add pineapple for a tangy kick. Dried long chillies, rather than the small birdseye variety, are preferred for their earthy and mellow flavour.
Many versions of peanut sauce served in Australia taste flat because they're made with store-bought peanut butter. It's convenient, but try making it from scratch and you'll see the difference. A peanut sauce should be rich and creamy with a generous scattering of crushed peanuts added just before serving for extra crunch. The satay sauce recipe here makes a generous amount, but it disappears quickly. Should there be any leftover, it's also fabulous with gado-gado and boiled potatoes.
What to serve with your satay
Ketupat, the rice cake cut into cubes, is not often served in Australia. Its palm leaf aroma is the perfect foil for the peanut sauce. Sadly, many satay stalls in Malaysia and Singapore now offer nasi impit, a kind of soft, mashed rice cake with none of the elusive aroma of ketupat. Still, if you come across a satay vendor offering this rice cake, give it a go and prepare to be amazed.
Satay is also served with wedges of onion and cucumber; some cooks also offer spicy pickles known as achar. Satay can therefore be a complete meal but it's also great as a starter with curries to follow.
How do you rate a good satay? It must never, ever be deep-fried as served in some restaurants here. This cooking method robs the integrity of the dish. It should always be grilled to order, and if I'm ever offered pre-cooked satay, I growl and ask for fresh ones.
Satay is perfect for summer and fun to make. Get your barbecue going and the scent of your satay will take you straight to the streets of South East Asia.
For this quantity of chicken you'll need 30 bamboo skewers; soak them in water for 30 minutes to prevent them burning. This recipe makes about 30 sticks.