Chicken Satay and Peanut Sauce
Night falls. Bees are still buzzing around the lily trees and the crickets are singing their joyful chants with great flourish. Moonlight shines through the tamarind tree, latent with fire. A slight breeze blows from the direction of the south China sea, sending its crisp air to cool the night. The morning birds have gone home to their respective nests. My cousins and I are competing in a game of congkat, a game of dice. While dinner is long past done with, our moms are busy cleaning and washing dishes, and storing away pots and pans. All of a sudden the sound, from a Mercedes-Benz draws in closer and closer. Beep! There is dad coming in after his social hour at the local country club, an after-work event that usually takes place on a Thursday evening. Back in the eighties, when we lived in Kelantan, a state in the north of Malaysia, Thursdays marked the end of the week (according to the muslim calendar). With him is a parcel stained with streaks of scented oil. The aroma of lemongrass escapes the package, infusing his Batik shirt.
I ran so fast toward him, and hugs and kisses were exchanged. It must have been his musky Old Spice aftershave that still lingered on his smoothly trimmed skin, and the fragrance from that packet that kept me draping over him. I was about three and a half feet and he was at least 6 feet. We walk into the dining room, and he laid out this parcel of love. At just the right moment, my cousins arrive at the table, then my aunt and lastly my mother. I tear open the package and it reveals 70 sticks of satay, chunks of marinated chicken meat on a stick alongside a cup of thick, spiced peanut gravy. My aunt counts the sticks, my mom divides them and the rest of us race to chow down these charred meats.
Satay is the ubiquitous Malaysian/Indonesian dish of marinated pieces of meat skewered on bamboo sticks and served with a peanut sauce. Legend suggests that satay is a symbol of a mace, a weapon held by the god Brahma, one of the male gods of the holy trinity of the Hindu pantheon. Popularized by street hawkers, satay would be cooked over a smoky charcoal grill, sending wisps of scented smoke into the air. Satay is a ceremonial dish often included on festive days like weddings and birthdays. In my family, we ate satays on Thursdays, to denote the end of each week which is a ceremony in itself. The meat is marinated in a handful of spices overnight. The peanut sauce is cooked in the same spices along with thick, unsweetened coconut milk. Satay on its own is rich, and sometimes I don’t feel it needs the dipping sauce to accompany it.
I attempted to replicate the flavors of satay as I recall in my childhood, and I was successful. I only wished I had an open flame grill to achieve a richer char. Mine wasn’t as good as the ones my father brought, but it took me back to the glorious days I spent with my family.
I used chicken thighs because the fat from the meat helps to moisten the meat and enhances the taste. Chicken breast does not have the capacity to suck in the marinade thus resulting in a dry and unappealing satay. Make this today and your family will come running to the table, wanting more.
Chicken Satay and Peanut Sauce
Makes 20 skewers
For the satay
2 lb. dark meat chicken, cut into small cubes
1 thick stalk of lemongrass
20 bamboo skewers soaked in cold water for 20-30 minutes
For the marinade
1 tablespoon of coriander seeds
1 tablespoon of fennel seeds
Grind the seeds in spice grinder and set aside.
2 stalks of lemongrass, white parts only, bruised and chopped into small rings
2-3 cloves of garlic
5 shallots, chopped
1 piece of galangal or ginger (4 inches), chopped
1 tablespoon of turmeric powder
3 tablespoons of palm sugar or brown sugar
1 tablespoon of peanut oil
Salt to taste
1) Place all the ingredients listed above and the ground spices in a food processor and purée.
2) If the paste doesn’t purée well, add a little water to the mixture.
3) The paste should resemble the consistency of a thick carrot soup.
4) Place the cut chicken pieces in a bowl and combine it well with the marinade, making sure every piece is well coated.
5) Store the chicken uncovered at room temperature for about 2-3 hours., occasionally tossing the chicken pieces to ensure the marinade is evenly dispersed.
6) If you’re in a hurry, you can cook it right away. If not, store the bowl of chicken covered in the refrigerator overnight.
7) Remove the chicken from the refrigerator at least 2 hours before grilling, and set on the counter top.
8) Bring a grill pan to heat.
9) Prepare the lemongrass stalk for basting by removing the outer layer. Cut the bottom end. Bruise the lemongrass with a heavy blunt object.
10) Place the lemongrass in a bowl of peanut oil.
11) Thread the chicken pieces onto the bamboo skewers making sure the center of the chicken is well penetrated. This will secure the chicken from falling off the skewer.
12) To cook the chicken, baste the grill pan with peanut oil.
13) Place the skewers on the grill pan and cook each side for about 3-7 minutes.
14) Using the bruised lemongrass, baste the chicken pieces with peanut oil.
15) Soon, the chicken pieces will pick up charred black spots(caramelization).
16) Turn the skewers over and continue grilling.
17) Do not overcook the chicken.
18) The taste of doneness will depend on each individual.
Serve this with or without peanut sauce.
For the peanut sauce
Makes 3 cups
1 1/2 cups of unsalted roasted peanuts
1-2 tablespoons of sambal belachan
1 clove of garlic
2-3 tablespoons of palm sugar (brown sugar will do fine as well)
1 cup of unsweetened coconut milk
2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar
Salt to taste
1-2 cups of water
1) Bring a medium-sized pan to heat.
2) Roast the peanuts, rotating the skillet gently.
3) Once they have picked up a nice golden color, remove and let cool.
4) Place the peanuts in a food processor along with the sambal belachan, garlic and palm sugar.
5) Pulse until you have a solid mixture. The mixture should still be coarse.
6) Transfer the ingredients to the same skillet you roasted the peanuts in.
7) Pour in the coconut milk and vinegar.
8) Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer and cook for about 3-5 minutes.
9) If the paste is too thick, ad some water. The sauce should be the consistency of carrot soup.