My desire to make satay sauce spawned in a bit of an unorthodox way. No, I didn’t go to Thailand: I watched “MasterChef Australia.” One of my favorite contestants in season 2, Marion, was half Thai, and she excelled in showcasing this exotic cuisine’s flavors in a modern, unusual, and nearly-always successful way. Near the end of the season, (spoiler warning!), she had to compete in an elimination challenge. The dish she needed to make was none other than satay sauce. This might have been considered a given considering her heritage, but it’s the dish that forced her to leave the competition.
Watching both contestants attempt to put together their own version of satay sauce (without a recipe) was intriguing, as they chose different ingredients and wound up with fairly different sauces. I thought of all the versions I had tasted up until now–some heavy on coconut milk, others on peanut butter, some very sweet, and others very spicy. I suspected that none of the sauces’ personalities I generally come upon are the real thing – and figured, if a woman who grew up with a Thai chef mom can mess it up, it’s probably more complex than it seems.
I decided to take a closer look at “Thai Street Food,” a breathtakingly beautiful book I had not yet cooked from, only looked at. It’s no wonder, as the book overflows with spreads of spur-of-the-moment street photography that includes cooks making hundreds of Thai wafers, kids eating at a lunch stall, and a lunch lady rolling her cart toward hungry customers. Add that to giant 11” x 13” pictures of each and every dish featured in the book, and you’ve got a feast for the eyes. Knowing that satay is a common and typical market snack in Thailand, I turned to Australian chef and Thai food authority David Thompson to guide me through the process of making satay.
The good news first: the satay sauce is finger-licking delectable; the skewers are thoroughly infused with flavor, and the recipe is fairly simple to go through (as well as nearly impossible to mess up). On the negative side, making satay sauce and skewers is a long process (not something you whip up at the last minute), and some ingredients can be hard (or impossible) to find. I did it; I’m not sure how my satay and skewers would compare with those made by the lunch lady who’s featured in the book, but I do know that mine were the best I have ever eaten.
I will tell you more about the ingredients I had a bit of trouble with, then post Thompson’s recipe, a somewhat simplified version. “Thai Street Food” is a painstakingly authentic book, so all the techniques and cooking methods that are described are those that are found in Thailand – some of which are difficult to reproduce at home. With a little thought and more research, I think I came up with great substitutes. I hope my tips will encourage you to make your own satay – you will never want to buy that bottled stuff again.
Win David Thompson’s Thai Street Food cookbook! Details about the giveaway at the bottom of this post.
The giveaway has ended! The happy winner is Richard Auffrey.
I mistakenly thought coconut cream and milk were the same. Of course it’s not; coconut cream is much heavier and creamier than its milk counterpart. The fact that I used milk added less fat to the sauce, which prevented it to reach its trademark “curdled” look, a good and appetizing layer of fat floating to its surface. I used coconut milk (not the low-fat kind), and if you ask me, the coconut taste was 100% there and I saved a lot of calories in a sauce that’s already very rich. Milk or cream? The choice is yours.
Coriander and Cumin Seeds
These spices are generally easy to find but I wanted to point out that it’s very important to start with whole seeds, not powdered spices. Seeds taste fresher (because they keep better) and dry-roasting them is an essential step that releases a crucial deep smoky taste to the sauce.
I admit I was completely at a loss here. Coriander roots…? Sometimes when I buy coriander, it comes in a large bunch with the roots still on. No such luck this time, but was it really what I was supposed to use? Research tells me that yes, it is. It seems that coriander roots have a deeper, more intense flavor than the leaves. Maybe the roots will be easier to find this summer; in the meantime, I used coriander leaves.
Photo © Wikipedia Commons
Dried Long Red Chilies
These chilies gave me a hard time. I visited five specialty stores trying to find them without success. I was looking for a package that would specifically say “long red chilies”. In the end, I found regular whole dried red chilies at my neighborhood’s grocery store. I think they were the right thing to use.
Fresh galangal may be hard to find, but sliced galangal is readily sold in the freezer section of most Asian grocery stores. It’s worth hunting for because of its unique earthy notes, plus you can throw it in Thai soups for a flavor punch.
Kaffir Lime Zest
I’ve never seen a kaffir lime in person so please don’t ask me for some kaffir lime zest. Kaffir lime leaves are easy to find though, in the freezer section of most Asian grocery stores. I substituted leaves to get the intoxicating aroma and the zest of half a lime to get the citrus zing.
Photo © David Monniaux (via Wikipedia)
This grass has become fairly mainstream by now. Most supermarket chains and produce markets commonly carry it. If you really can’t find it fresh, it’s also sold finely chopped and frozen at Asian grocery stores.
Chunks of palm sugar (which you grate) can be found in some natural foods markets, and some carry the powdered version as well. If you can’t find it, you can use raw unrefined sugar instead.
Pandanus Leaves (sometimes called pandan leaves)
I had never heard of this one before reading about it in Thai Street Food. I was 100% convinced I wouldn’t find it around here, but – oh surprise! – my favorite Asian grocery store carries it! It’s a fairly common Thai cuisine ingredient (shame on me that I didn’t know what it was) so chances are you will probably find it in the produce section of your Asian market as well. The leaves look like sword-blades, they are sold fresh and they smell absolutely nothing. Thompson says they impart “an enchanting nutty perfume” to dishes. It’s used to infuse liquids and it’s usually knotted so that it’s easy to fish it out once the cooking is done.
This is a simplified and shortened version of David Thompson’s recipe. The background info he gives on each recipe is priceless; you simply have to get his book to benefit from all his tips and advice. Rest assured though, you have everything you need here to make the best satay you’ve ever tasted.
Makes enough skewers for 3 to 4 people, sauce for at least two satay recipes (Yay! You’ll be able to make satay in a pinch next time!)
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 tablespoons finely chopped lemongrass
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped galangal
1 ½ teaspoons turmeric powder
Pinch of chili powder
½ cup coconut cream (or milk)
2 tablespoons coconut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon shaved palm sugar (or raw unrefined sugar)
400 g pork neck or loin (you can also use chicken or beef)
½ cup coconut cream (or milk)
Pinch of salt
4 dried long red chilies
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon chopped lemongrass
½ tablespoon chopped galangal
½ teaspoon finely grated kaffir lime zest (or 2 kaffir lime leaves, very finely chopped and the zest of ½ lime)
1 tablespoon chopped red shallots
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
½ tablespoons cleaned and chopped coriander roots (or 2 tablespoons finely chopped coriander leaves)
1 ½ cups coconut cream (or milk)
2 tablespoons shaved palm sugar (or raw unrefined sugar)
½ cup finely ground peanuts
½ cup stock, water or coconut milk (I used half water, half coconut milk)
1 pandanus leaf, knotted
1 tablespoon fish sauce – more or less, to taste
Pinch of chili powder
Make the marinade: In a dry, heavy-based frying pan, roast the coriander and cumin seeds, shaking the pan, until aromatic (not more than 2 minutes – watch over it to make sure they won’t burn). Using a mortar and pestle (or an electric grinder), grind the spices to a powder before adding the lemongrass, salt and galangal. Pound to a fine paste, then stir in the turmeric and chili powders. Add the coconut cream, oil and sugar and stir until dissolved. Pour into a bowl.
Marinate the meat: Cut the pork (or chicken or beef) into thin slices about 1 ½ in x ½ in, add to the bowl of marinade and leave to marinate in the refrigerator for at least an hour, or as long as overnight.
Cook the skewers: If grilling the skewers on a barbecue, soak the bamboo skewers in water for about 30 minutes, then thread 3 to 6 slices of marinated meat onto each skewer. The satays can then be returned to the marinade for a few minutes or a few hours.
Place the skewers’ ½ cup coconut cream in a wide, shallow bowl and stir in the pinch of salt. Take each satay out of the marinade and give it a dip into the coconut cream before placing it on the barbecue grill (medium heat) or in a grill pan over high heat. Grill the satays 3 to 4 minutes per side, turning them often, and basting with salted coconut cream throughout the process. Be careful not to overcook the skewers; since the meat is very thin, it cooks pretty quickly. Pork and beef tastes better and is more tender when it’s medium-well done.
You can cook the skewers in advance then reheat gently in a 300°F (150°C) oven for about 10 minutes.
Make the sauce: Nip the stalks of the chilies (if they’re still on) then cut along their length and scrape out the seeds. Soak the chilies in water for about 15 minutes until soft. While the chilies are soaking, toast the coriander and cumin seeds in a dry, heavy-based frying pan until they are aromatic, shaking the pan often to prevent the spices from scorching. Grind to a powder using an electric grinder or a pestle and mortar and set aside.
Drain the soaked chilies, squeezing to extract as much water as possible, then roughly chop them. Now here’s the sporty part: Using a pestle and mortar, pound the chilies with a pinch of salt, then add the lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest (or leaves and lime zest), shallots, garlic and coriander roots (or leaves) one ingredient at a time, reducing each to a fine paste before adding the next. I didn’t seem to have enough elbow grease to efficiently turn my ingredients to a paste, so I ended up using the smallest bowl of my food processor. You could also use a blender. You will probably need to add a little water to aid the blending, but try not to add more than necessary, adding it 1 tablespoon at a time. Frequently turn the machin off to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, then turn it back on and whiz the paste until it is completely pureed. This step is very important as the texture of your paste will become the texture of your satay sauce (it’s best when it’s smooth and creamy, not too chunky). Finally, stir in the ground spices.
Heat 1 cup of the coconut cream (or milk) in a small pan and simmer for a minute or two before adding the paste and frying it gently for 4-5 minutes until fragrant and oily, stirring regularly. Season with the palm sugar then moisten with the remaining coconut cream (or milk). Simmer for 2-3 minutes, then stir in the peanuts and simmer for 5 minutes. Moisten with the stock, water or coconut milk, add the pandanus leaf and simmer for another 5 minutes. Season with the fish sauce, chili powder and a pinch of salt. It would be rich, sweet, nutty, spicy and quite oily (mine didn’t show much oil rising to the surface). Remove from the heat and let the sauce sit for an hour – it will improve happily. Store the sauce in an airtight container, what you don’t use today will keep for several weeks.
To serve: Reheat the skewers (if you cooked them in advance), gently warm up the satay sauce, and serve with a palate refresher like cucumber relish.