In our inaugural feature for Gastropology 101, our Food Historian Nadge Ariffin brings forth the definitive essay on satay, those delicious skewered chunks of meat grilled over a charcoal flame and served with peanut sauce, sliced cucumbers and onions.
In some parts of the archipelago, satay means love
Mention ‘Satay’ and those who know this dish will most likely begin to salivate. A quintessential contribution of the Malay Archipelago to the planet’s culinary repertoire, it has been claimed by just about everybody else as ‘their’ influence.
Let’s explore the origins and hidden features of this exotic meat-on-a-stick preparation. First we need to establish what satay is and where it is found.
Satay’s most common form is of lidi or sticks, usually from coconut palm frond stems, skewed with between two to four small chunks of chicken, beef or goat meat marinated in spices, and cooked over an open fire on a grill box (tepak).
After grilling (bakar or salai) this meat-on-a-stick preparation is eaten dipped in a sauce that is peanut or other nuts or else soy based, served with some freshly cut onions, cucumbers, and ketupat cubes of rice cooked in woven palm leaves, or in some places like in Java with a plate of white rice.
In olden days, the tepak satay grill box was even a portable affair and a warong satay, impromptu restaurant springs up anywhere a customer stops the satay cook-vendor!
Today it is widely found as a very popular local food across Southeast Asia; in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand where it is especially known in the Malay-speaking south, as well as parts of the Philippines that have traditional contacts with nearby Malaysia.
You can enjoy satay anywhere in Southeast Asia
Indeed, all these lands are ethnically of the broad Malay-stock and is one indicator of satay’s Malay origins. All satay-related terms in italics here are in the Malay language and understood across Southeast Asia.
While the form is roughly the same everywhere as above, the tastes vary widely according to especially the concoction of spices used in the marinating of the meat (turmeric being a must, which gives the yellow tinge) and the recipe of the sauce.
These spice and sauce recipes are sometimes a family or even commercial secret and are guarded jealously. Great personal or communal feuds have been known to erupt because of accusations of copying or even stealing of satay recipes, although in line with the gentle nature of the Malay people, satay recipe induced warfare is unheard of.
Satay also differs in some places in other ways. Notably in Java and also for satay Madura, the island to the northeast of Java; the meat is most usually goat since goats are common as they are tough and take less space to breed in these highly populated islands. Another reason is that goat meat is said to be hard, and is thus more efficient to grill rather than use more fuel resources to cook it.
In other places such as in Malaysia, Singapore and Sumatera (satay Padang and other types), the unadventurous chicken is more popular together with beef and sometimes kerbau, the common water buffalo. In non-Muslim areas of Southeast Asia such as on Bali or for the Chinese, pork and even turtle satay is available.
Tripe satay is very popular in Malaysia
Other halal meats or meat parts are also used in especially Malaysia, from cow intestines and tripe to rabbit and deer meat or venison, fish and even ostrich meat from ostrich farms that are found in Malaysia’s west coast. As if that’s not exotic enough try landak or common porcupine. That’s as far as it goes in the Muslim diet, and other wild animals especially carnivores are strictly forbidden. Tiger, python and cobra or even crocodile meat satay – no way! However in clandestine Chinese restaurants or on far-flung non-Muslim islands is another matter.
Back to Satay Origins
Satay has been claimed to be an influence of every immigrant or colonial group in Southeast Asia from Chinese to Indians to Westerners and even Arabs and Turks. This very cacophony of conflicting claims helps to negate each other.
The simplest way is to look at direct etymology and historic records. In the modern alphabet, satay is also variously written as or called sate, saté (with accented é), satae (in Thailand) as well as satte (in the Philippines).
While there has been talk of the word coming from some Chinese sounding combination of sah-tay or even sam-tay or from some disputed Tamil word and even a corruption of the English steak, no linguistic etymologist has been able to defend each of these claims from the others.
An origin from steak is completely out as satay was already locally known when Europeans first arrived in the Malay World, and besides, satay is more like a barbecue than a steak. Moreover, any term needs a history of its usage to back it up, which all the above claims lack.
The term in fact has origins in the Malay Peninsula and Sumatera regional milieu from a rather mundane fact of history. It is a historical record that the ancient Malay peoples of Southeast Asia were travelers and seafarers. The historian T.N. Harper wrote "The civilisations of the Malay World are founded on movements of people rather than the settled accumulations of population."
Thus in those days, many of their foods were meant to be prepared on-the-go or at least ready-to-go, with foods that are quickly salai to last longer i.e smoked or grilled; and done so on portable tépak cooking boxes with meats conveniently on sticks that could be wrapped in large fresh leaves and taken away.
A nice coal fire is needed to get that caramelised char
The Malay language is a multi-syllabic tongue that lends well to combining syllables from different words to signify new names and meanings, which is still done till this day. Thus to name this specific meat dish that is made by salai (smoking or grilling) on a tépak (any boxy thing used for cooking), they simply abbreviated 'SAlai di TÉpak' (‘smoke on a box grill’), getting saté.
A Healthy and ‘Lovely’ Satay Ending
Some modern detractors of satay try to spoil the fun of eating this dish by claiming that its cooking method results in a high burnt carbon content that can cause cancer. This largely depends on how careful the cook is while grilling and turning the skewers.
In most cases, the burnt carbon content is negligible and people don’t eat satay every single day to reach danger levels of carbon. Thus there has hardly been any case of digestive tract or other cancer attributed to eating satay! Besides, the same accusation could be made for all barbecues and every type of grilled dish…
In any case, the olden Malay cooks must have known something of food science: to counter any supposed effects of burnt carbon, they added generous portions of fresh cucumber and onions. Why so?
Cucumber is an unsung vegetable that contains ascorbic (Vitamin C) and caffeic acid that gives a cooling soothing effect on the larynx and linings and also Erepsin, the enzyme that helps in protein digestion. Meanwhile onions contain the detoxifying flavonoid Guercetin that counters carbonic toxins. Studies have shown that this Guercetin antioxidant protects against cancer*.
Therefore these two are the perfect complements and antidotes to any carbonised grilled meat. And all are correctly eaten raw for the natural chemicals to take direct effect, besides perfectly matching the flavours of the satay itself.
Finally, did you know that in the Malayo-Austronesian dialect of some eastern islands of Indonesia such as on Sumba, satay is also a verb meaning “love”? Thus “Aku satay kau” literally means “I love you”…