As a young boy, Alfonso*, the owner of Kedai Satay in Melbourne, could not wait to get out of the swimming pool. You might think this odd, but young Alfonso was anticipating a treat. Waiting for him after each swim was a plate of juicy chicken pieces scorched by the fire, seeped in marinade and skewered onto bamboo sticks.
He would grab a satay and tear off three pieces in a single mouthful. Nothing tasted quite as good as satay after hours of swimming, even if they were a tad too hot.
Buying 50 satay sticks for dinner was a weekly affair for Alfonso's household when he was growing up in Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta — much like it was for other Indonesian families. Whenever people heard the familiar bell of the satay seller, they'd rush out to their cart with cash in hand.
Alfonso says there was a good chance satay was fresh if you could see smoke rising from the seller's burner.
Chicken satay is a favourite dish in Jakarta, especially because it's readily available. The satay seller will turn the skewers frequently to prevent them from burning and keep the thigh meat tender.
But Arie Parikesit, an Indonesian culinary expert and founder of Kelana Rasa Culinary food tours, says the archipelago has at least 40 kinds, which vary by protein, marinade and cooking method.
It all began a few hundred years ago when countries were learning more about each other's cultures through trade. Parikesit says, "If you go to India, Pakistan, and parts of Central Asia, you will notice that they grill meats with metal sticks. We learnt from them, and used local ingredients or local methods, replacing metal sticks with bamboo or other types of wood."
From there, Indonesians in different regions of the country used what they had from the land and sea to make their own versions of the 'grilled meat on a stick'. To this day, satay remains much loved by Indonesians, who can consume 15 skewers in a sitting.
Parikesit shares some of his favourites with SBS Food.
Satay Padang or minang
Satay Padang is made from beef and other parts of the cow, including the popular ox tongue, says Parikesit.
It's eaten with rice cakes wrapped in coconut leaves called ketupat. The sauce resembles a smooth porridge made from various spices and rice flour, and bears a dark red colour. The satay Padang you'll find along the coast has some heat, while that in the mountainous region has a milder flavour and turmeric colour.
In Bali, fish is minced and mixed with base be pasih, a Balinese seafood spice paste. Then it's wrapped around a flat bamboo skewer, giving it its name 'lilit' which means 'to wrap', says Parikesit. The dish is finished by grilling it over an open fire with coconut shell charcoals "to make it even more fragrant."
"Besides being served as a main dish, satay lilit is also served as part of Balinese mixed rice."
The Balinese accompany it with a fresh condiment called sambal matah, made from sliced raw chilli, shallot, makrut lime leaves, terasih (fish paste) and other ingredients. Parikesit says, "Besides being served as a main dish, satay lilit is also served as part of Balinese mixed rice (nasi campur) along with other side dishes."
Satay from Lombok - a variety
When you cross over to Lombok, you'll find satay rarely seen in other parts of Indonesia. According to Parikesit, satay rembiga (spicy beef) and satay bulayak (chicken or beef grilled in spices and coconut milk) are usually only eaten on the island.
Made from goat, satay kambing is one of the more widely known variations. In the towns of the Special Region of Yogyakarta, satay kambing is eaten with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) mixed with chopped chilli, shallots and tomatoes.
Parikesit explains that people do not waste any part of a slaughtered goat. They use it to cook sop kambing (soup), gulai kambing (similar to a light curry) and tongseng kambing, a stir-fried dish which can accompany satay kambing.
People in the Yogyakarta region make what Parikesit calls a minimalistic goat satay. Here, chunks of goat are only seasoned with salt and pepper. 'Klatak' is an onomatopoeia of the "sound that the coarse salt crystals make when the satay is being flash grilled," he explains.
Sanitised bicycle spokes act as satay sticks, because the metal transfers heat evenly throughout the meat. A spiced goat-ribs soup is served on the side in place of a punchy sauce.
To the north of Java lies Madura island, home to the Madurese. Parikesit says, "The Madurese people migrated all over Indonesia to seek better jobs and opportunities, and a lot of them opened food businesses including satay ayam stalls."
The satay it sells is made from chicken flesh, skin, gizzard or liver. Peanut sauce and lontong (rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves) are usually sold alongside this type.
Another minced variety of satay is found in Solo, a city in Central Java. Its name also refers to the wrapping of the spiced mutton mince around the skewer. Goat fat is added to further encase the satay, much like a sausage, says Parikesit.
Satay ayam ponorogo
Between East and Central Java lies Parikesit's favourite chicken satay. It boasts ayam kampung, a local breed of free range chicken, and a flavourful, sticky peanut sauce.
Alfonso offers this final tip when eating any of these satay varieties, one he knew instinctively when he was that young boy bolting out of the pool: For a juicy mouthful, always eat it immediately, no matter how hot it is.
*Alfonso has requested to only be referred to by his first name.
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