There’s nothing new about skewering meat and grilling it, a set of firedogs used for holding skewers, unearthed in Santorini, dates back over 3700 years, and it’s likely that our ancestors started roasting meat nearly 2 million years ago. In his book Cooked, Michael Pollan even posits that the act of cooking food ushered in the age of modern humans with bigger brains and smaller guts because cooked food can be chewed and digested faster allowing us to spend less time eating and more time thinking.
For me, Satay (sometimes spelled Saté) could quite possibly be the apogee of this ancient art of cooking. With meat marinated in warm spices like turmeric and coriander along with aromatics such as lemongrass, galangal and garlic, it’s then skewered and then grilled (preferably over charcoal) until the exterior is caramelized while the inside is tender and juicy. As if that weren’t drool-worthy enough, the skewers are then served with a spicy sweet peanut sauce.
Although Thailand and Malaysia have their own versions, Satay most likely originated in Java, Indonesia, by way of Muslim traders from India (whom most likely acquired the skill from Middle Eastern kebabs). I still remember my first bite of satay as a child, at a Thai restaurant in Australia. Juicy and incredibly flavorful on its own, when dipped in the peanut sauce, it became an indelible part of my food memory that I will cherish for life.
Indonesia may be its place of origin, but the regional variations are no less legitimate in the same way pizza has regional variations around the world. The Satay I’m sharing with you today is Thai-style, based on that childhood food memory. I’ve used chicken thighs, but you could substitute pork, beef, lamb shrimp, or even vegan meat substitutes such as tofu or tempeh.
For the peanut sauce, I often see people using peanut butter, but having made this from scratch with whole peanuts I’ll never be doing it with peanut butter again. For one thing, you can’t roast peanut butter with shallots and chilies like you can with whole peanuts. The earthy aroma of the browning nuts along with the sweet fragrance of caramelized shallots and spicy chili powder is simply intoxicating.
Using whole peanuts also allows you to control the texture of the sauce. Personally I like my peanut sauce thick and chunky. To get the peanut sauce to this consistency, I just blend it at low speed for a few seconds. If you want a smoother thinner sauce, blend it at a higher speeds, adding more coconut milk, until the peanuts are fully pureed. Since a 14 ounce can of coconut milk contains 1 3/4 cups, you can use the extra 1/4 cup to adjust the consistency of the sauce to your liking.
To make tamarind juice, check out step 3 of my Massaman Curry Recipe for instructions on how to make it from pulp, or you can buy it in most Asian supermarkets. Just be sure you get one that doesn’t have any sugar or other ingredients added.
satay peanut sauce
- Put the coriander seeds and cumin seeds in a blender and blend until the spices are ground. Add the galangal, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, coconut milk ,sugar, fish sauce and turmeric to the blender and blend until the marinade is smooth and free of chunks.
- Put the chicken in a bowl and pour the satay marinade over the chicken. Stir to coat evenly and let the chicken marinate for at least 1 hour, or preferably overnight. This is also a good time to start soaking your skewers in water to keep them from burning (I forgot to soak mine).
- To make the peanut sauce, add the coconut oil and shallots to a frying pan and fry the shallots until they start to brown.
- Add the peanuts and fry until the peanuts are fragrant and browned and the shallots have fully caramelized.
- Add the chili flakes and fry for a few seconds until they are fragrant.
- Remove from the heat and add the coconut milk to the pan to cool the mixture.
- Pour everything into a blender and then add the fish sauce, sugar, tamarind juice and curry powder. Blend at low speeds until the mixture starts to thicken but the sauce still has some peanut texture. Adjust the seasonings to taste. You can also continue blending until the sauce is smooth if you prefer, but you will likely need to add more coconut milk.
- Skewer the chicken, being careful to skewer it in such a way that it is roughly the same thickness from end to end. If there are areas where the chicken was cut too thick, you'll want to trim it down, otherwise the thin parts will dry out by the time the thick parts cook.
- To cook the satay, you can either use a charcoal grill, gas grill, or broiler (in that order of preference).
- If you're using charcoal, pile the charcoal evenly on one side of the grill so you have a range of temperatures to work with. If you are using a gas grill, preheat the grill on medium heat until hot. If your grill is not seasoned, you'll want to rub some oil onto the grill to keep the skewers from sticking.You may also want to put down a sheet of aluminum foil below the exposed parts of the skewers to keep them from burning. Grill the chicken until it is browned and lightly charred on both sides and the internal temperature registers 160 degrees F on an instant read thermometer.
- If you are using a broiler, move your oven rack to the top position and place the skewers on an oiled rack set on a sheet pan and then lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the exposed parts of the skewers to keep them from burning. Once the top surface is browned and lightly charred, flip it to get the other side and broil until the satay registers 160 degrees F on an instant read thermometer.