Everything You Need to Know About Satay, According to Petty Pandean-Elliott

Plus, three grill-ready recipes from her new cookbook.

April 12, 2023

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When you think of “summer grilling,” you probably imagine hamburgers and hotdogs, freshly shucked ears of corn, and maybe meaty slabs of fish or chicken coated in barbecue sauce. And while there’s nothing wrong with any of those dishes (we have plenty of recipes for them on our site!), this summer, I’ll be following author and chef Petty Pandean-Elliot’s lead and making satay.

Satay—known as sate in Indonesia—is “widely enjoyed across the Indonesian archipelago” but has roots in Java, says Petty, whose new cookbook, The Indonesian Table, lands on shelves this week. “In basic terms, [satay] is food on a stick or skewer that can be flat or cylindrical, generally made from bamboo,” she says. Typically thought of as a street snack, or something to serve at an informal gathering of friends, these days satay can also include “prime cuts of meat or high-price seafood”—ideal fare for high-end restaurants, too.

“My first memory of satay is with my family in Sabang street in Jakarta, famous for its satay vendors, who are busy fanning the bright coals from coconut shells in shallow trays used to cook the satay,” says Petty.

Photo by Phaidon

Far from the ubiquitous chicken or beef satay, served with peanut sauce, that we typically see in the States, satay can vary wildly depending on where you’re making and eating it. Java alone is home to over 40 types of satay, Petty says. In Bali, there are five main variations, including one—sate lilit—made from minced seafood molded over lemongrass stalks, which creates an “almost lollipop-like” appearance. All in all, there are said to be over 250 varieties of satay in Indonesia, says Petty, citing Prof. Dr. Ir. Murdijati Gardjito of the University of Gajah Mada.

How to Make Satay

According to Petty, in an ideal world, it’s best to make satay using Indonesian grilling equipment—a setup that includes a narrow grill that’s 10 to 12 centimeters wide, 40 to 50 centimeters long, and a few centimeters deep. Charcoal made from coconut shells is also ideal, but wood charcoal works, too. However, because these specifications can be difficult to find outside of Indonesia, she notes that “a good alternative is the Japanese hibachi grill used for yakitori.”

“Simply prepare the charcoal as you [would for a] barbecue. Lightly grease the hibachi grill with vegetable oil to prevent the satay meat from sticking. Remove the [prepared] skewers…from the refrigerator 30 to 40 minutes before cooking,” she says. “When the flames have died down and the coals are white, gently grill the skewers, and cook for four to six minutes, turning often until ready. Serve hot on a plate with or without sauce or extra sambal.”

If you’re planning to cook for a crowd, Petty recommends breaking up the prep over the course of a few days—and getting friends and family to join in. “Prepare the sauce or sambal a day before to give you more time to relax and mingle with your friends and families on the day [of],” she says. “The next day, you can spend time putting the protein on the skewers. This may take some time, but with help from your family members, it will go by quickly.” Start cooking the satays when your guests arrive, and eat them fresh off the grill.

To get you started, Petty has shared three satay recipes from her new book, each utilizing a different protein and hailing from a different region: Chicken Satay from Java, Pork Satay from the city of Manado (in Sulawesi), and Seafood Satay from Bali, respectively. Her chicken satay riffs on the classic and features a “delicate garlic, coriander, and [soy] flavor.” The pork iteration is spicy and fragrant, thanks to lime and coconut. The seafood satay has “a true Balinese flavor” consisting of ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, and other aromatics.

When it’s time to serve, pair the satays with plain steamed rice, or lontong, which is a compressed rice cooked in banana leaves. Pickled shallots and chiles also make a great accompaniment, as do salads, sambals, and rice dishes like nasi goreng or nasi campur. Ultimately, “satay is very versatile,” says Petty. “It goes with everything.”

Which satay will you be making this grilling season? Share in the comments!
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Anabelle Doliner

Written by: Anabelle Doliner

Staff Editor