We spent the first two weeks of March in Malaysia, split between the chaos of capital city Kuala Lumpur and the incredible beauty and tranquility of Langkawi. The very first meal we had, courtesy of room service at 1am, was chicken satay. Satay is a dish I thought I knew reasonably well: I had it regularly from hawker centres and stalls while working in Singapore, and it’s commonly on our Thai takeaway order here in the UK, too. But wow! The Malaysian version completely bowled me over – I must have had it at least every other day for the next two weeks, wherever it appeared on the menu. Half a dozen sticks of juicy chicken or beef, marinated in classic Asian flavours, an incredible zingy, fiery peanut gravy for dipping, and the traditional Malaysian accompaniments of chunks of cucumber and sweet white onion, and ketupat, which is cold cooked rice, compressed into little bricks.
One afternoon we were sheltering in a bookshop from one of those tropical downpours that happen when you’re that close to the equator, and browsing the food and drink section, I came across “Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen“ by Sharon Wee. I brought it home in the hope that it would give me an authentically Malaysian recipe for satay, and then upon closer inspection realised I’d picked up a Singaporean book (the Nonya bit really should have tipped me off). To further confuse the issue, the recipe in the book comes from the author’s mother’s Indonesian friend. Fortunately, and despite a couple of adaptations to account for what I can obtain in a north Leeds supermarket, it has not let me down.
For the meat:
500g chicken breast (or you could use beef, turkey, lamb…)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 heaped tbsp galangal (for this and the lemongrass, I used the ready-pulped kind from a jar)
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tbsp lemongrass
3 small brazil nuts, finely ground
A couple of handfuls of frozen chopped shallots
5 cloves of garlic, minced
60g demerara sugar
Bamboo skewers soaked in water
Cut the meat into smallish chunks and season with the salt and baking soda (that was a first for me, too). Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a large bowl, and then add the diced meat and mix well. Refrigerate for at least a few hours and preferably overnight.
For the gravy:
300g dry-roasted peanuts, ground
pinch of salt
2 cups water
2 tomatoes, quartered – don’t worry about taking the skin off; it will be easy to remove from the finished gravy
1 tsp galangal
1 tbsp lemongrass
A handful of frozen chopped shallots
1 clove of garlic, minced
Crushed dried chillies: at least 1 tbsp and thereafter, to taste
1/2 cup groundnut oil
salt and sugar for seasoning
Remove the meat from the fridge and thread onto the skewers. Then put the peanuts, water and a little salt into a medium sized, deep sided saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the tomatoes and mash with a wooden spoon. Set aside. Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the remaining ingredients, frying until the shallots have softened and the smell is making you unbearably hungry. Stir the contents of this pan into the peanut sauce, so you have a thick gravy, and add extra salt and or sugar as you see fit.
The skewers would be best cooked over hot coals, but with piles of snow on the ground here, they went into a 200 degree oven for 20 minutes, and the sugar in the marinade blackened enough to give a slight char flavour. I served with cucumber chunks and an imperfect ketupat (should have left the rice on longer!) but not onions as I’ve yet to find any sweet enough here. It was a delicious and very piggy dinner for two, with enough of the gravy to go into the freezer for next time.