WHY NOW? WHY THEN? NO REASON. IT WAS JUST A SWITCH TURNED ON,
LIKE THE DAY WHEN A GIRL STARTS TO LIKE A BOY.
Craving, is a strange thing.
It’s been 8 years since the first and last time I visited the island of Bali, and not in the almost 3 decades before nor the years after, had I given this thing called sate (or satay) even the slightest attention. Weird, given that I have, since then, graced through the feeding grounds of Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Hong Kong, trapped in the seduction of rice noodles folding under that intoxicating broths, infatuated with fish heads bubbling inside the sinisterly red gravy, undistracted from the fetish pursuit of just how transcendently sexy it could be, inside the supple thighs of a chicken gently poached in herbed stock and served over rice. Might I even add that when it comes to meats-on-a-stick, I did plenty damage around the globe.
But sate? Yeah sure I saw it somewhere here and there. But what, why and how, honestly, I couldn’t care less.
Perhaps I’ve always suspected them to be dry, a reasonable doubt given the skimpy amount of meats having to fully char over charcoal. Or that they, out of the mere once or twice close encounters, appeared to have been on the sweeter side of seasoning, a repellant for a set of taste buds that can’t appreciate dinner oozing into the dessert category. Either way, it’s just never been my thing.
But then, out of nowhere, in the least likely form of seduction, it caught my attention on a Thursday night TV program playing on repeat.
As far as the AFC program goes, I can’t gush much about it, just an Asian traveling show featuring an assortment of sate in Indonesia. In terms of writing, not even a great one. As I said, an unlikely seduction. But before I even understood what I was feeling, first, curiosity blossomed. Why now? Why then? No reason. It was just a switch turned on, like the day when a girl starts to like a boy. What is sate? What have I missed? The eye-smearing smokes coiling above glowing charcoals started to intoxicate. The snippets of meats clothed in pastes, fanned out and flapping above the fire started to portray, not dry, but tightened strips of meats condensing in flavours. The oily and sticky dipping sauce… the squishy bread in mopping duty… the bitten pickles that sharpened my imagination… all of a sudden, aligned.
I let the young attraction brewed without action for a few days, then on the third day, I opened the cookbook I brought back from Bali for the first time in 8 years.
Love happens, better late than never.
I was wide-eyed and struck by the techniques and yielded flavours that were new to even my long years of cooking. First I must clarify that I know the word sate, is as generalized as the word sandwich. It vaguely depicts in forms and regions, but unbound by flavours and preparations. I am of course, in this case, talking specifically in Balinese style. The techniques in making the spice paste that goes to marinate the meats, blew my mind. Think of how a typical southeast Asian curry is made, that a curry paste is cooked into liquid to become a sauce, then think of this technique as going in reverse, in the way that a pureed “curry” is cooked down – until the oil separates from the liquid, until the liquid evaporates from the solids, until the sugar darkens into caramel – to become a paste. It is almost a jam-like process, intensely aromatic.
But at this point, was where I parted with the cookbook. It explicitly declared that a Balinese-style sate is never served with a sauce, but I couldn’t shake the fetish of a spicy “dirty” peanut sauce. Dirty as in chicken livers, in this case, browned and pureed into the peanut butter and coconut milk-mixture to bring an extra depth of flavour. If you’re not an liver-person, don’t panic, because you won’t be able to pinpoint the origin of that extra richness that hovers in the background, very much the same way it does in Cajun dirty rice. All you would and could focus on, is the sizzling char on the tips of savory and tender chicken thighs dripping in coconut oil, and the contrasting sweetness from the rich and velvety peanut sauce singing with a note of lime. A shot of chili flakes if you’re on a roll, and the relentless pops and zings of pickled chilis with a squishy soft roll to mop up the mess.
Don’t let another summer pass by without.
Roughly adapted from Bali Unveiled Cookbook
- 4~5 large (27.7oz/785 grams) skinless boneless chicken legs
- 9~11 small (4 oz/113 grams) Asian shallots, peeled
- 12 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2" (2.2 oz/63 grams) fresh turmeric (or 30 grams ginger + 2 tsp ground turmeric), diced
- 1" (0.9 oz/25 grams) galangal, diced
- 1 stalk (26 grams) lemongrass, white parts only, chopped
- 6~7 red chilis
- 1.7 oz (50 grams) roasted unsalted cashews
- 1 1/2 tbsp (25 grams) palm sugar, or dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup + 1 tbsp (69 grams/75ml) coconut milk
- 1/4 cup (57 grams) coconut oil
- 2 fresh bay leaves, torn
- 3 tbsp fish sauce
- 3 small shallots, finely minced
- 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1" (0.9 oz/25 grams) galangal, finely minced
- 5 red chilis, diced
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1/4 tsp ground cumin
- 1 cup (470 grams) coconut milk
- 1 cup (250 grams) smooth peanut butter
- 1/2 cup (140 grams) finely diced pineapple
- 5 kaffir lime leaves, torn
- 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 2 tsp lime juice
- 2 tsp fish sauce
- 2 tsp dark brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp lime zest
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 4.4 oz (125 grams) chicken liver
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
- MAKE CHICKEN SATE SPICE PASTE: In a blender, blend shallots, garlic, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, red chilis, cashews, palm sugar and coconut milk until smoothly pureed. Transfer into a pot, then add coconut oil, bay leaves and fish sauce. Bring to a simmer over medium heat then turn it down to medium-low heat. Partially cover with a lid (to avoid splatter but allows the steam to escape), stirring every 5 min, and cook until the mixture has reduced by 1/2 and becomes a paste-like consistency. The majority of the moisture should have evaporated and the oil separated from the solids. The color should have darkened considerably. Transfer to an air-tight container and chill until completely cold. Can be made up to 1 week ahead.
- MARINATE THE CHICKEN: With a sharp knife, score the surface of the chicken in a criss-cross pattern (this creates nooks and crannies that latches onto the spice paste), then cut into bite-size pieces. The cold spice paste should have become solidified and quite thick, now gently and evenly massage the chickens together with the paste until it penetrates into all the folds and cuts. Marinate for at least 6~8 hours in the fridge, or better yet, overnight~1 day.
- MAKE DIRTY PEANUT SAUCE: (I have changed the steps of this sauce to streamline the process, so the steps look different from the photo) In a pot coated with a bit of vegetable oil, cook shallots, garlic, galangal, and red chilis over medium heat until browned on the edges. Add paprika and ground cumin and cook until fragrant, then add coconut milk, smooth peanut butter, diced pineappe, kaffir lime leaves, dark soy sauce, lime juice, fish sauce, brown sugar, lime zest and black pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until the mixture has reduced to 80~75%. The oil will start to separate from the liquid. You can skim off excess oil as you go but not completely as it's important for the flavours.
- Meanwhile, season the chicken livers generously with salt and black pepper. Coat a hot skillet with a bit of oil, then brown the livers on all sides until just cooked through. Once the sauce is reduced, with an immersion-blender or blender, blend in the chicken livers and Dijon mustard until the sauce is smooth. Re-season with fish sauce if needed. Can be made the day ahead and reheated over low heat.
- TO COOK THE SATE: If using wooden skewers, soak them in water beforehand for several hours to prevent burning. When making the skewers, try to retain as much spice paste on the meats as possible, and don't make them too big (sate is supposed to be small!). If you're using a charcoal grill, grill the skewers until golden and slightly charred on all sides. If you're using an oven:
- Preheat the top broiler on high. Scatter several large pieces of onions on a baking sheet to prevent smoking, then a baking rack over the top. Place this into the oven so the baking-rack is only 2" below the broiler. Arrange the skewers on top of the baking rack, turning them once or twice, until the meats are slightly browned and cooked through. DON'T risk over-cooking the meats because you want to get a good char. You won't be able to anyways with home-oven. Instead, I apply the char with a blow-torch afterwards.
- Serve the sate immediately with dirty peanut sauce, pickled chilis and sweet bread rolls.
I replaced candlenut with cashew because it's hard to find outside of southeast Asia. You can can use candlenuts if you have it.