Originating in Indonesia, satay is a dish popular across Southeast Asia, from Malaysia to Singapore to Thailand. It has even become a favourite in the West, our version usually consisting of grilled skewered chicken accompanied with a peanut sauce. In Southeast Asia, however, it may be made from a range of meats or even tofu, and the accompanying sauce need not always be peanut-based. The dish’s name derives from the grilled meat, not the sauce itself.
The popularity of satay across Southeast Asia has led to its derivation being contested, however, most contemporary scholars agree that satay comes from the Indonesian sate and was developed on the Indonesian island of Java by street vendors who had adapted Indian kebabs. As Jennifer Brennan notes in her Encyclopaedia of Chinese and Oriental Cookery (1988):
‘’Although both Thailand and Malaysia claim it as their own, its Southeast Asian origin was in Java, Indonesia. There, satay was developed from the Indian kebab brought by the Muslim traders. Even India cannot claim its origin, for there it was a legacy of Middle Eastern influence.’’
Indeed, the introduction of satay, alongside other popular Indonesian dishes such as tongseng and gulai kambing, came about at the same time as an influx of Indian and Arab traders in the 18th century. The delicious dish quickly spread – it overtook the Malay Archipelago, and by the late-19th century, it had crossed the Strait of Malacca to become popular in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. The dish even went worldwide with the help of Malay immigrants from the Dutch East Indies who transported it all the way to South Africa, where it is known as sosatie. Satay has become a dish known the world over, a brilliant example of the culinary exchange and innovation that binds the world’s foodies together.
Traditional Indonesian satay is usually served with kecap manis (a sweet soy sauce – did you know the word ketchup originates from Indonesia?) and a longtong, a type of rice cake. One is difficult to get hold of, and the other is fiddly to make, so I suggest some plain boiled rice alongside. My recipe for chicken satay may not be totally authentic (it’s a stir-fry, so much easier for the time-pressed student), however, the history of satay shows us that recipe development forms the backbone of eating good food. Do remember that this recipe can, and should be, adapted – use vegetables or tofu, up the heat by adding some chilli, just do whatever your taste buds tell you to do!
Easy Satay Chicken Stir-Fry (Serves 4)
3 tablespoons oil
750g boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
1 pack of sugar snap peas
1 pepper, thinly sliced
200g peanut butter
125ml soy sauce
2 tablespoons white vinegar
75g brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornflour, mixed with 1 tablespoon water
1. In a large frying pan, heat the oil over a medium-high heat. Add the chicken pieces and onion to the pan and fry for several minutes until the chicken is cooked all the way through. Transfer the meat to a dish.
2. Heat a little more oil in the pan. Sauté the broccoli, sugar snap peas, and pepper until they are cooked al dente – they need a little bite in them. Return the chicken to the pan and drop the heat to medium.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together the peanut butter, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and cornflour mixture until smooth. Add to the chicken mixture and let it cook for a few minutes until the sauce has thickened and is bubbling. Serve!