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Satay (spelt sate in Indonesian) is made of cubed meat, skewered kebab-fashion, then grilled and eaten with a peanut sauce dip. Tracing its origins to the Arabs, the satay has been adapted to the multi-cultural palates of Asians with various spicy sauces and different ways of marinating the meat.
Arabs were known to skewer their meat on swords before roasting and Middle Eastern nomads would barbecue their meat on metal skewers in a dish known as kebab or sharwarma. The spice trade brought Arab traders to Southeast Asia and led to the spread of Arab culinary culture to the Indonesians and eventually to Malaya. The kebab or sharwarma has also spread to India and even Beijing residents can savour fiery flavoured kebabs today. However, a key adaptation of the dish in Asia is that wooden rather than metal skewers are used for the satay.
The satay sauce, made from ground peanuts and other spices, was first introduced in the Philippines by the Spanish from South America. It is used to marinate the pieces of satay meat, with the remaining sauce served as a dip with the grilled meat.
The meats used are beef, mutton, lamb or chicken. Among non-Muslims, pork is used too. The small cuts of meat are marinated in various spices that also work to tenderise the meat. They are then skewered through wooden sticks. Satay sticks were originally dried, thin stems of the coconut leaf, but today factory-made bamboo sticks are used. The satay is barbecued over a flaming charcoal fire, whilst constantly brushed with oil for a tantalising glaze, until well-browned. The sticks of grilled meat are then served with a bowl of peanut dip and cuts of cucumber and onion. The small cuts of meat mean that several sticks can be eaten in one go, and satay is often served as a complete meal accompanied with ketupat, or steamed rice wrapped in woven leaf packets.
Indonesian satay is also available in Singapore. It has a much sweeter flavour and a twirl of kechap manis or sweet sauce added to the peanut sauce. Other spices such as galangal and finely cut dashes of the limau purut leaf heighten the flavour of the satay and its sauce.
Satay in Singapore
The travelling satay man, a street hawker who prepared his delicacy with a portable charcoal grill, was a familiar sight to Singaporeans up to the late 1970s. The Satay Club, a collection of stalls hawking solely satay in the evenings at the edge of the park at the Esplanade, was a popular dining destination until it was demolished in 1995 to make way for new developments. Today, satay is sold in many hawker centres and whole industries have grown around it. There are now wholesalers that prepare uncooked satay for hawkers, taking over a tedious task that used to be the sole duty of the satay hawker. In 1995, Hainanese Poh Kee Satay became the first company to franchise their satay using a specially designed machine that could skewer up to 30,000 sticks a day. There are many companies that cater satay to parties as well.
A local variant of the traditional satay sauce has the peanut mix topped with pineapple puree. Another innovation in recent times is the shrimp satay, where prawns are coated in garlic, skewered and barbecued but are not served with the peanut sauce. New dishes have also been introduced, such as satay bee hoon, which has adopted the unmistakable satay ingredients.
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The information in this article is valid as at 1999 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.