So, some friends and I are at this media party thing at the Mill St. Brewery, and they’re serving free appetizers and cookies and the like. One of the items being displayed on little platters are sticks of satay with a tiny dish of peanut sauce for all of them. I’m not going to talk shit about Mill St. (their taps are pretty great) but when my friend said the satay was good, I begged to differ. I was 75% sure the meat wasn’t marinated in anything, and it definitely was missing some key ingredients if it was, since there was no distinctive colouring, or any significant flavour. Basically it was some pieces of chicken on a stick. Maybe some salt and pepper. That’s not satay.
I was (and am) biased when it came to satay though, since a few years before that, I was sitting in a outdoor food court on Pasir Ris beach in Singapore, watching an old Malay man fanning satay on a proper satay grill. Unbelievably good. That’s how satay is actually done – you’ve got white-hot coals slow-roasting the meat, and when the chef determines it necessary, he fans the coals to re-ignite the flames to sear and blacken the meat, while he’s basting it with oil or coconut milk. Plus, the whole thing’s been marinated for a day in spices and aromatics. The difference between this and a piece of chicken on a stick is fairly significant, to say the least. Can you blame me for being an ass about it, then?
So I told my friends, “Look, this isn’t satay. I’ll make you some satay.” And I did. We started our series of summer grill parties and I brought satay and peanut sauce. This is a variant on the satay I brought. The other thing about satay is – pretty much everyone and everywhere has got their own recipe, and some of them are very different from what you get around here. There’s a lot of ways to make it, that’s the point – for instance, many recipes call for onion in the marinade, but I personally don’t always prefer the onion flavour added. To each their own.
A final note: Fire is crucial here. You can cook this in your broiler or propane grill if you really have to, but ideally you want to cook satay over charcoal. I’ve done all three (and a few times on an indoor electric grill) and the charcoal-singed flavour and smoke is the extra flavour layer to make your satay go from good to great.
Ingredients (to serve 4):
- 4 chicken breasts
- 16-18 bamboo skewers (1 foot in length)
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 stalks of lemongrass, sliced with outer layer removed (see below)
- 2 large cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp chili powder (optional)
- 1 tsp cinnamon (optional)
- 2 tbsp unsalted peanuts, ground into a fine meal (optional)
Serve with: peanut sauce, quartered chunks of cucumber, rice cakes, sliced red onion, fried chili paste or sambal
What you will need: Charcoal grill or a broiler sheet for your oven, a large glass mixing bowl, measuring cups and spoons, large knife and cutting board, serving plate
- Your first task is to prepare the marinade. In the mixing bowl, add all the ingredients except the chicken (and the bamboo skewers, obviously) and lemongrass. I saved the lemongrass for last because you might not know what to do with it, assuming you found it at the grocery. You can watch Pranee prepare lemongrass here. The short, non-video version is that you want to remove the root end and the upper, green and dry parts of the stalk. Then remove the outer few layers of the stalk to get to the softer whiter center. Then slice that against the grain to get a pile of little rings and discs about 1-2 mm thick. You don’t want to make the pieces too small, as we’re going to remove the lemongrass from the chicken before grilling.
- Next, prepare the chicken. Slice the chicken into long strips (down the length of the breast) about 3-5 inches long, 1/2 inch wide and 1/4 inch thick. As best you can anyway – a thinner cut piece of chicken will be exposed to more of the marinade, so you’ll get more flavour packed into each bite if you avoid putting large chunks of chicken onto a skewer.
- Put the chicken into the marinade bowl, and use a spoon to stir the chicken around in it. Make sure no chicken pieces stick together. You want an even distribution of marinade over the chicken. Put this in the fridge with some plastic wrap over it.
- Wait until tomorrow. Seriously. Some recipes will tell you that you can marinate satay for 2 hours and then cook it. Maybe you can, but why not be safe and marinate it for a day? This means you have to plan this meal a day in advance. This is a problem for some people, including me. But it will be worth it. No shit.
- Let’s assume you smashed together this satay marinade and chicken at about 12:30 a.m. after coming home early from the bar. Now it’s 5 p.m. the next day. That means 16.5 hours have gone by. That’s long enough.
- Soak the skewers in cold water. Find a plate, or large cup, storage jar, etc that can hold the length of the skewer, and use enough water to cover the entire skewer. They’ll float initially, but as they soak up water, they will sink slightly.
- Go get a bag of quick-start charcoal and light it up in your grill. By the time you’re done the next step, the charcoal should be ready to grill on. You don’t want to throw shit on the grill before the briquettes have turned white, because before then, there’s still a lot of chemical fumes coming off them. That will make your satay tastes like lighter fluid. It’s not awful, just not the intended result.
- Take out your marinade bowl from the fridge. Get your soaked bamboo skewers and start threading chicken pieces onto them. Something like this. Take care not to push the chicken pieces together too tightly, or else it won’t cook as evenly (the denser parts will cook slower) Flick the lemongrass discs off the meat. If you tried to eat these, they will be woody and chewy. If you miss a few, whatever, but get the big chunks off for sure.
- You are ready to grill.
- Push the coals to one side of your grill and grill the skewers slightly to the edge of the pile of coals. You don’t want to put them directly over the coals as this may cook them too fast and they will get burnt. These are chicken, and chicken requires medium-high heat for about 8 minutes. You’ll know when they’re done because the meat will be firm, edges blackened and the meat directly touching the skewer is no longer pink.
- Eat it hot! With peanut sauce! You did make peanut sauce, right?
Peanut sauce. I can’t stress that enough.