• Street grill: chicken satay in Kuala Lumpur. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Satay doesn’t actually mean peanut sauce - Southeast Asia’s favourite street food snack is a dish of skewered, grilled meat with infinite variations.
Rachel Bartholomeusz

15 Apr 2018 - 7:20 PM  UPDATED 5 Mar 2020 - 2:08 PM

Satay, or sate, a dish of skewered, grilled meat, is to South-east Asia what pavlova is to Antipodeans. A celebrated, nostalgic dish, many cultures like to claim it as their own. Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore all count it among their national dishes, and it’s also found in Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Brunei. Satay is the English spelling, and also the modern Malaysian spelling, though it’s sate in Indonesia.

It’s thought the dish originated there, in Java, as a local take on the skewered kebab introduced by Muslim traders who came in search of spices.

As it spread across South-East Asia, sate picked up different ingredients, condiments, methods, and cuts of meat, so that even within Indonesia alone there exist many regional variations. It’s a concept that is easily adaptable to local customs and produce, rather than a single dish.

First up, semantics

Sate doesn’t actually mean spicy peanut sauce, though we tend to misappropriate the term here, and other dishes have been invented that use this accompanying sauce. Sate refers instead to the skewers of meat, and many variations of it come with a different sauce, and some without any sauce at all. This tells you what the focus should be: on succulent, spiced and perfectly grilled meat.

The meat

The protein – whether lamb, chicken, beef, goat, pork, fish, tofu, offal or even exotic meats such as turtle or snake – is marinated and threaded onto soaked bamboo sticks (or traditionally in Indonesia, the rib of a coconut palm leaf, and lemongrass in Bali). The paste differs between regions, but ingredients such as turmeric, lemongrass and ginger are usually key, and the meat will marinate in this for hours.

The grill

The method of cooking over charcoal is another essential element. The traditional sate barbecue grill is long, thin and portable, making this the perfect street food. You’ll still find sate in homes, at special occasions, and at restaurants, but the streets are where the theatre of sate really comes to life. It’s a dish best suited to cooking outdoors, because you want the smoke to infuse the meat and the sparks of fire to char its edges, and to this end vendors will fan their coals with a handheld makeshift fan, or sometimes an electric one.

Pork satay with chilli dipping sauce

The variations

In Indonesia, sate ayam (chicken satay) is the most common form of the dish, served with lontong or compressed rice cakes. The national condiment, kecap manis, is drizzled over the skewers accompanied with a spicy peanut sauce, eschalot and cucumber. From here, the variations begin, and are too numerous to name – though their names generally reflect either the type of meat used, or the town from which it originates. There’s sate kambing, made with goat, and sate Madura, from the Indonesian island of the same name, served with a black sauce made from kecap manis, palm sugar and other aromatics. Sate Buntel from central Java is made with minced meat, often beef, held together with fat membrane, sate babi (pork) is popular among Indonesia’s Chinese community, and a minced pork version, sate lilit is common on Bali, while sate Padang from Sumatra is made from offal cuts, such as cow’s tongue, cooked in a spicy, rendang-like curry sauce and then grilled. And that’s to name but a few.

In Malaysia, chicken satay is the most popular variant, though you can find all types of meats on offer. The standard version is commonly served with fresh eschalot and cucumber, and a sweet and spicy satay sauce, though this recipe varies from stall to stall, and particularly between Chinese and Malay vendors. Ketupat (rice wrapped in banana leaf) is also traditionally served to turn this snack into a meal. One of the most famous versions of satay in Malaysia comes from Kajang, 20km south of Kuala Lumpur. Malaysians make day trips to eat the dish in this ‘satay city’, which comes with both peanut sauce and sambal.

Satay in Singapore shares an ancestry with the classic Malaysian version, though a local variation is grated pineapple in the accompanying peanut sauce. In Thailand, pork and chicken satay are commonly eaten, and it’s the Thai version that has spread most widely in the west with the proliferation of Thai restaurants.

In the Philippines, it’s known as satti in the south, or simply ‘barbecue’ in the rest of the country, and is often made with chicken or beef. Satti is eaten for breakfast in a soup flavoured with annatto and peanut sauce, while elsewhere the skewers are marinated in a very sweet sauce that includes banana ketchup.

Craving sate now?

Whether you call it satti or sate, dip it in peanut sauce, chilli sauce or soy, these moreish skewers make a most excellent snack. Sadly, there’s no sate man waiting on the street outside for an instant fix here in Australia, so you’re just going to have to get grilling yourself. 

grill thrills
Malaysian chicken satay with homemade peanut sauce

"If all you’ve ever had is a store-bought satay in Australia, I really hope you try this recipe because it will revolutionise the way you think about satay. These are sweet and deeply fragrant, full of wonderful South East Asian aromatics. The sauce is less about a gravy of spicy peanut butter, and more of a lusciously complex sauce of which peanuts are a balanced part of the flavour profile. The accompaniments are often met with surprise, but provided to be dipped in the sauce to give refreshing respite from the richly marinated morsels of satay meat. You can substitute the chicken with chuck steak to make satay beef. " Poh Ling Yeow, Poh & Co.

Chicken satay (sate orob)

This is a popular satay that is often sold at night markets around Bali. The distinct flavour and subtle aroma of the marinade is particularly delicious, especially if you let the chicken marinate overnight. Children tend to find anything cooked on a stick appealing and they love the flavour of these. Serve with peanut sauce if you wish, although I prefer without.

Pork satay with chilli dipping sauce

It is believed that satay is an interpretation of Middle Eastern kebabs and was introduced to Southeast Asia by way of Arab traders. There are countless regional variations; this version is made of pork, grilled over charcoal and served with chilli vinegar sauce rather than traditional peanut sauce.

Minced pork satay (sate lilit bali)

This Indonesian recipe involves mixing a spicy paste with pork mince and then moulding it around sugarcane sticks, although you can use wooden skewers. They are then placed in a frying pan or on a grill and cooked until brown.