Malaysian Chicken Satay & the Addictive Sauce That Makes It Shine

August 14, 2018
The true test of a satay's character lies in its peanut dipping sauce Photo by Julia Gartland

Being Malaysian might mean that I automatically love satays. And adore them I do. But my love for them isn’t just a cursory show of culinary patriotism, it’s also a love that, like the best marriages, has weathered many changes throughout the years, and has only grown stronger because of it.

What's not to like? Those succulent, smoky chunks of meat on skewers, bolstered by the deep, aromatic Southeast Asian flavours of turmeric, lemongrass, and cumin. To Malaysian kids, satays were the next best thing after nuggets and fries.

But after having way too much satay for my own good, my tastes for it have become more discerning over the years. I realized that it was often the char that differentiated the very best satays from the rest. Compared to the pan-fried or griddled satay that’s often espoused by recipes online, satays grilled over a charcoal fire have an extra dimension and depth of flavor. Like the burnt bits of a barbecued brisket or a binchotan-grilled smelt, it’s that smoky, molasses-y char that truly brings satay to the next level.

In the latest development of my satay adoration, I found myself obsessing over an aspect of the skewers that I had previously never given much thought to: the peanut dipping sauce.

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Now, this peanut sauce isn’t all that its name implies: roasted peanuts blended into a sauce. A true Malaysian satay sauce is sweet, savory, spicy, acidic, aromatic, and nutty all at the same time. Its depth of flavor comes from a strong core of Southeast Asian ingredients: shallots, chilis, garlic, lemongrass, and galangal. These aromatics are first blended into a spice paste and fried until super fragrant, then tempered with some tamarind and roasted peanuts. This results in a very punchy sauce that can jive with and enhance the strong, smoky flavor of the meat skewers themselves.

In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand (the birthplaces of satay), every single serving always comes with a peanut dipping sauce. The sauce is such an integral part of the satay experience, but it’s one that's often overlooked elsewhere in the world. In my years of living abroad, I’ve been to Malaysian restaurants that served satays with what was essentially watered-down peanut butter, and at desperate times even visited pseudo-Malaysian food establishments that didn't have sauce at all. But worst of all were the places that substituted the peanut dipping sauce for a sweet chilli sauce instead. Though I'm all for variation and interpretation, when it comes to satay, it's really not the same.

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I look back fondly on my first saucy satay at a sweaty, crowded shop in Kajang (the Malaysian Mecca of satay, so to speak) years ago. Since then, I’ve had a whole paradigm shift on the way I consume satays, and now probably have more sauce than satay!

It might seem weird to care this much about a mere condiment, but trust me, the sauce is everything. And while it admittedly does take a little more time and effort to prepare than the many peanut-butter based satay sauces out there, I promise you this is well worth the effort. It’s a surefire route to falling one level deeper in love with them.

Do you have a favorite way to cook chicken satay? Let us know in the comments below.

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1 Comment

Colleen August 19, 2018
I completely agree that the sauce is essential! That’s where the salt, fat, and acidity comes from. That said, I wonder if one could use fish sauce in place of salt, given that fish sauce is native to SE Asia? I’m wondering if such substitutions or changes in texture (chunky vs smooth) marks the difference between Malaysian sauce and, say, Thailand?

This is just a guess, but I wonder if restaurants outside of the region are catering to guests who don’t have tolerance for spice. I’ve found so many times that restaurants “dumb down” the food for ang moh, rendering it less authentic. It’s a shame, because I miss authentic SE Asian food that we had when we lived in Thailand and Singapore.