If someone needed a simple explanation of satay I would hesitate to say, “meat on a stick”. That’s a start, but it is so much more than that. Satay in Singapore can be of different varieties, however, mainly you have Javanese (Indonesian) and Malay styles. My Father-in-law, who I sadly did not get the chance to meet, was of Javanese heritage. It is this style I attempted to achieve today. It is the taste my husband and our family are used to.
This is my first time making satay entirely by scratch. In the past I have used commercially prepared mixes. This is a dish you don’t want to screw up, because it has a very distinct flavour. Coriander, chili, and lemongrass are the dominant flavours, and it is necessary to get this right. If not, I guess it would just taste like meat on a stick…but when my husband had his first bite it was nice to hear, ” yeaaahh…this is it! ”
I also wanted to do this dish justice because it is part of my husband and children’s cultural tapestry. Satay has a very old tradition in Singapore. When my husband was a little boy he seen a Javanese satay cook (wak satay) on one or two occasions. My Singaporean brother- in- law remembers when they were a common presence in Singapore. These cooks were a one-man operation, carrying baskets and cooking grills balanced on a bamboo pole which they carried on their shoulders. Families, friends, and young couples would perch on little stools, waiting eagerly as these humble men cooked them a feast. Magically, out of materials kept in a couple of baskets! These men and their wares disappeared over the years, as they were replaced by regulated hawker centers.
Today, satay grills are still very popular and crowded evening hang-outs. We had the pleasure of being treated to one on our last visit to Singapore. Our niece and her husband took us to Telok Ayer Market, where it was buzzing with locals and expats. We sampled a few dishes, but the satay was why we were there, and the satay was the highlight of our food order.
When I mentioned to my brother- in- law that I wanted to post on satay, he had a recipe link for me within moments! Singaporeans are passionate about food and they will rush to your aid if you have questions (and my bro-in-law is also a wonderful person!). Upon reading it through, my husband and I noticed some key ingredients were missing, such as lemongrass and chili. In all fairness, the recipe had rave reviews, but It seemed it was a simplified recipe altered for the Western pallet. This prompted me to keep looking for a recipe that was a bit more authentic. We think we have found it. This is the recipe from the blog of a Singaporean gentleman, now living abroad. This was his wife’s passed down, family recipe. His blog post on chicken satay is well worth reading.
I have slightly altered his wife’s recipe, as it called for 15 dried chilies between the meat and sauce. That’s a bit too hot for my liking. So I have endevored to find a middle ground…somewhere between what my husband likes and what an average person can tolerate without calling 911. That being said, the satay itself is not very hot. The peanut sauce is hot. But the richness and sweetness balance the heat nicely.
You will notice the recipe calls for hot chili powder. Chances are you won’t find this without going to a specialty shop. It is not the generic chili powder found in grocery stores that every Nova Scotian has in their cupboard. Not the kind you make your bean chilli with. This is the potent 100% ground hot chilies. If you have it, I’m impressed. I got mine in Singapore, and it’s past it’s best date. It’s losing it’s potency and bright red colour. For that reason, I have added a substitute of fresh Thai chili pepper.
This was a practice run for me, as I have promised my cousin a satay feast one day soon…I was really pleased with the results and with the help I got from my husband and daughter. It wasn’t hard getting help when everyone started smelling the spices.
Ingredients for satay (marinade):
2 lbs skinless chicken breast, cut in thin strips
*Thumb-size piece of ginger, sliced (see note below)
3 shallots, sliced
1 stalk lemongrass, bruised and sliced (you use only the bulb end and small portion of stalk), or 1 tbsp lemongrass paste
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 Thai red chili, seeds scraped out and discarded
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp cumin
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp **thick tamarind juice
3 tbsp vegetable oil
* some may be scratching their head and asking what I mean by a “thumb size” amount of ginger. This is how my sis-in-laws taught me to measure root spices. They would specify the amount using thumb, baby finger, or finger tip size. Many Asian cook books use the same unit of measure. Just imagine how much ginger would take up your thumb. Do not worry about being very precise.
** In specialty stores, and in some imported food aisles at the grocery store, you can find tamarind pulp. Its sold in pressed blocks. Break off a piece about the size of a chestnut. Soak in about a 1/4 cup hot water for several minute. With your fingers, squeeze out the pulpy juice, removing any seeds. Take your thick juice from this liquid and don’t throw out the extra. You will need it again for the peanut sauce.
First, using a mortar and pestle or bullet/processor, grind garlic, shallot, chili, ginger, and lemongrass until smooth. Add in all the dry spices and grind them as well.
It does not have to be completely smooth, there will be bits of the coriander seeds. That is ok and preferable. Scrape and scoop this all into a small bowl and stir in the tamarind juice, oil, and brown sugar.Mix well.
Take your sliced chicken and divide in half. Put half in a medium ziploc bag, and the other half in another bag. Likewise, divide half the marinade and add each to the bags of chicken. Seal and squish together to coat all pieces of chicken.
Place in fridge and chill at least 6 hours. Mean while, make the peanut dipping sauce:
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp fennel seed
1 tsp HOT chili powder or 1/2 fresh Thai red chili (seeds too)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin powder
1 cup roasted, *unsalted, peanuts
4 shallots, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
4 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp lemongrass paste or 1 lemongrass bulb, sliced
1 tsp belecan paste (fermented shrimp paste) *optional
1 tbsp thick tamarind juice
1 1/2 cups coconut milk (one full can)
First, grind or process dry spices and peanuts. If peanuts have salt, omit the tsp of salt in the recipe. After processing, peanuts should be a bit chunky, not too fine. Set aside in a bowl.
Grind or process the garlic, lemon grass, shallots, chili, until smooth. Set aside in small bowl.
In a small pot heat oil. Fry the dry ground ingredients until fragrant. Add the wet ground ingredients, fry also until fragrant. Add tamarind and belecan. Add brown sugar, and stir quickly to avoid burning.
Turn heat down to low and add coconut milk. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally for about 45-60 minutes until it has thickened a bit and oil rises to the surface. Don’t remove any thin skin that forms at the surface. Just stir it back into the sauce or you would lose some of the spices. Reheat before serving the satay.
To assemble & cook satay:
After marinading for several hours, thread the chicken onto bamboo skewers that have been soaked in water for at least 15 minutes. Oil your grill and cook on medium-high heat for 10 minutes or until you are confident they are done. This made about 35 ‘kebab-sized’ skewers, if you are making this as part of a main dish. You can get double the amount if you are making them as party appetizers. Just use shorter skewers.
Nice accompaniments are mango salad (recipe post to follow), and steamed basmati rice. A traditional side served with satay is cucumbers and red onion. A simple pickle, which I served with mine, is chopped cucumber and onion mixed with a tbsp of rice wine vinegar and a tsp of sugar.
You may want to wear your loose pants…