Meat. Stick. Fire. On that basis, you might say satay was probably invented by a man…
Misandrist stereotypes aside, satay doesn’t judge – satay loves everyone! Or rather, everyone loves satay. The cross-cultural appeal of satay is undeniable, not just around Asia, but across the globe. Unfortunately, worldwide celebrity status means that somewhere along the way, good satay has gotten lost in translation. In extreme cases, it has been reduced to nothing more than tasteless chewy meat topped with what might as well be sweet peanut butter.
So, how should we define the perfect satay? Unfortunately, that in itself is a loaded question, as the umbrella of satay can cover a multitude of national and regional variations, both in skewered protein as well as the accompanying sauce. Throw in unaccountable personal preferences and you have a recipe for who-knows-what.
So rather than attempting to create the greatest satay recipe known to man, here’s a recipe for what I enjoy and if you like it too, then I applaud your good taste!
My meat of choice in this case is pork – while chicken or beef may be more commonly used, pork satay can be often be found in non-Muslim communities in Asia. I also like pork for a bit of variety, and I think it strikes a nice medium between flavour, tenderness and juiciness. I’ve chosen to go for quite a strong flavoured marinade – that’s just my style. A touch of spicing is balanced with aromatics and a trio of soy, fish and oyster sauces to create something almost approaching a curry on a stick. Tamarind and sugar round out the profile so everything is balanced.
In my opinion, the satay should be tasty enough to stand up on its own, and also to the sauce (after all, recipes are usually “Satay with peanut sauce”, not “Satay sauce with a bit of random meat”) – the sauce is there to complement it, not to provide (or overwhelm) the flavour.
Talking about the sauce, the aromatics in the pork are mirrored here, and I’ve deliberately styled the sauce to be lighter and more tangy with tamarind to contrast the sweet/spicy pork, rather than the overly-thick-and-sweet variants that are becoming increasingly common. How finely you grind up the peanuts depends on you – if you like more texture in the sauce, leave it more coarse – the sauce in the pictures is made from peanuts ground to a sand-like consistency.
I took the opportunity to test out a few variations on the shape of the meat too, so here we have three options – “accordion” strips, flat strips and chunks.
On the opposite end, flat slices cook through far quicker and give you more surface area for charred bits, but because they’re so thin they can be prone to drying out and overcooking if you take your eye off them.
Accordion strips as I’ve named them are flat strips which are then squashed up into a chunk, but they didn’t seem to offer any particular benefits, and sat somewhere in the middle of the scale.
I’ve gone for the flat strips in this recipe, because they cook quicker. Just make sure they don’t overcook!
This is particularly true if you’re using a lean cut like a fillet – I’ve used sliced shoulder here but feel free to use whatever you like, though something like belly might be a bit too fatty. If you’re using a cheaper cut, just spend a bit of extra time trimming off any gristle or sinew, as the cooking time is so short you’ll just end up with tough chewy bits.
You can serve these pork satay as appetizers, snacks or as part of a main meal. You’ll often find pieces of cucumber and onion as accompaniments, and a house favourite is spicy fried rice (nasi goreng) with satay on top!
[This recipe was inspired by a couple of sources that you might want to check out…David Thompson’s Pork Satay recipe from Thai Street Food, James Oseland’s section on satay from Cradle of Flavour. This link to Saveur’s rundown on satay is also an interesting read!]