Do you like Indonesian, Malaysian or Thai-style satay, what sort of meat do you use – and what goes into the make-or-break marinade and sauce?
Satay is one of those dishes that most of south-east Asia claims as its own. One of my testers boasted of her considerable experience in the field in Thailand; another thought the origins were Indonesian – then backtracked, asking: "Actually, is it Malaysian?"
I had to admit that I wasn't quite sure – the Oxford Companion to Food credits it to all three, but notes that food writer Jennifer Brennan names Java as the place where the Indian kebab, imported by Muslim traders, first took on a distinctly more eastern feel.
Unsurprisingly, then, even though all satay involves grilled meat skewers, the marinades and accompanying sauces vary considerably – which made choosing between them a tough task. (I was relieved to find none resembled the reformed, oddly juicy sort that come along with a little sachet of peanut butter sauce, still sold at supermarket deli counters.)
Those based in Britain will probably be grateful for the news that, although in an ideal world satay would be cooked over a smoky charcoal grill, at this time of year a smoking-hot griddle pan proves a pretty decent substitute. In fact, it gives a better flavour than the kerosene-heavy ones I had in Singapore a few years ago.
Thigh is the most popular choice, given the juicier meat has more chance of standing up to the scorching heat. French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who has worked in Asia for many years, serves a breast-meat satay at the Spice Market, his south-east Asian restaurant. Rick Stein suggests a mixture of breast and thigh in his Far Eastern Odyssey.
I'm not convinced: the breast, though pleasant enough, is definitely duller than the thigh, which offers a multitude of sensory pleasures. American food writer James Oseland advises: "When making satay, it is best to retain some of the fat with the chicken thigh. When grilled, the fat keeps the meat moist and sometimes bits and pieces of them becomes crunchy, thus adding texture and smokiness to the meat." This may or may not explain why one of my testers describes one particularly well-larded skewer as tasting "like KFC. But better."
The difference really comes in the marinades, which range from the wonderfully simple – Rosemary Brissenden's garlic, ginger and light soy sauce version in South East Asian Food – to the fiendishly complex: Vongerichten's involves 11 ingredients, David Thompson's Thai Street Food and Saveur magazine10 apiece, almost all of which require toasting or chopping and grinding before use.
Spice-wise, I like the fresh flavour of the coriander Saveur, Thompson and Vongerichten use – toasting the seeds and grinding them fresh, as the latter two suggest, brings out their flavour – but I don't find that cumin, fennel, turmeric and chilli add much. I do like Stein's black pepper, though, and his wonderfully zesty kaffir lime leaves, which, like the lemongrass used by Thompson, imbue the chicken with a lovely perfumed freshness.
Indeed, after tasting five varieties, ranging from the sweet and fruity (Vongerichten) to the exotically coconutty (Thompson), I come down in favour of this delicately aromatic flavour: the shallots used by Vongerichten and Stein can be saved for the sauce, as can the coconut, and, of course, the peanuts. I'll be leaving out Vongerichten's condensed milk, however: palm sugar does the job nicely. No substitute is required for his whisky, which is a rather puzzling addition.
Vongerichten and Stein use shallots in the marinade, but I think a generous quantity of garlic works better, along with ginger for sweetness. As a balance, some soy sauce – Stein's syrupy Indonesian kecap manis, and ordinary salty stuff – works wonders.
Saveur's recipe demands four hours in the marinade, Thompson specifies at least an hour, Brissenden 30 minutes, Stein at least 10 and Vongerichten sticks the meat straight on the grill. I'm surprised how little difference it makes: the flavour comes through on Vongerichten's meat almost as clearly as the Saveur version. Half an hour seems a happy medium, but if you don't have the time, it's no disaster.
This is another area of contention: while all the sauces are peanut-based, Thompson's coconut cream and lemongrass version is sweet, rich and, yes, coconutty, while Stein's, with its kecap manis and two types of chillies, is savoury and spicy. Vongerichten bases his on red curry paste, whereas Stein and Brissenden add lime juice and shrimp paste for a rather more bracing effect.
Stein's reminder that the sauce should be be sweet, sour, salty and spicy is a good one: palm sugar and coconut milk, kecap manis, lime juice and chilli will be the dominant flavours in my version – along with the peanut, of course. At the risk of infuriating lovers of authentic satay, I disagree with all the recipes over texture. Finely ground is fine for peanut butter, but my testers agree that they prefer the chunky sort I've left in Stein's sauce as an experiment, which gives it a far more interesting texture. Feel free to grind them if you prefer a more traditional version.
Most of the sauces are also rather too thick at room temperature, but they're easily loosened with a little water or a dash more coconut milk for your dipping pleasure.
The perfect chicken satay
1 tbsp coriander seeds
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2.5cm piece of ginger, finely chopped
3 tbsp finely chopped lemongrass
2 kaffir lime leaves, shredded
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp kecap manis
1 tsp soy sauce
500g skinless, boneless chicken thighs
Crispy fried shallots, to serve (optional)For the peanut sauce
2 bird's eye chillies, seeded and finely chopped
5 shallots, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 tsp shrimp paste
1 tbsp vegetable oil
150ml coconut milk
2 tbsp palm sugar
150g unsalted peanuts, roasted and roughly chopped (or finely ground, according to preference)
2 tsp kecap manis
Juice of 1 lime
Start by making the marinade. Toast the coriander seeds in a dry pan until fragrant, and then grind to a powder in a pestle and mortar. Add the garlic, ginger, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and pound to a rough paste along with a generous grinding of black pepper. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the oil, kecap manis and soy sauce.
Cut the chicken into long strips about 3cm wide and stir into the marinade, mixing well. Cover, refrigerate and leave to marinade for at least 30 minutes if you've got it, and up to 12 hours. Soak eight wooden skewers in cold water until ready to use.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. Put the chillies, shallots, garlic and shrimp paste in a pestle and mortar, or the small bowl of a food processor, and pound or blitz to a paste. Heat the oil in a wok or wide frying pan, and then fry the paste until it smells cooked. Add the coconut milk and palm sugar and simmer for a couple of minutes, then add the peanuts and simmer until slightly thickened. Stir in the kecap manis and lime juice, add a little water or coconut milk if it's too thick, then taste to check the balance of flavours; add more lime juice, sugar or soy sauce if you think it's lacking. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Thread the strips of meat onto the skewers in an "S" shape, pushing them down so they're all touching. Cook the skewers on a barbecue, or a griddle pan over a medium-high heat, for about 20 minutes until cooked through, turning regularly. You can turn the heat down to medium on the griddle after all are well charred – don't worry about black bits, they add flavour. Serve with the sauce, and plenty of napkins.
Indonesian, Malaysian or Thai – which is your favourite satay? Do you like chicken, pork, beef, water buffalo, rabbit, horse – or even the slightly gruesome-sounding, but undoubtedly delicious, skin satay? And what do you serve with it? Pickles are my particular favourite.
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image: © Brianna Laugher