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Mmm… Satay!

Posted by on 9 July 2008

[Photo taken with my D40 and 18-135mm Nikkor lens, just before the lens conked and refused to focus. Said lens is now en route to Nikon Service Centre for checking, as it is still under warranty.]

When you’re in Malaysia, one of the foods that you should try is satay [sa-tey].

Satay is skewered chicken or beef meat, previously marinated in a secret blend of spices and grilled over charcoal flames. The recipes vary but the one I like has garlic, lemongrass, shallots, turmeric, and a little bit of sugar in it.

Satay is best eaten piping hot, fresh from the grill, in a place exclusively serving satay, such as Ismail’s Satay near Keramat LRT Station. The place is a very simple roadside affair but the satay there is goooooood. Not used to dining at the roadside? No problem. Just tell them — ‘bungkus, ya?’ (bungkus = packed) or ‘takeaway, ya?’. Americans and Filipinos may say ‘takeout’, but Malaysians say ‘takeaway’.

It’s quite an experience watching the cook vigorously fanning the dancing flames to prevent the meat from getting burnt, turning the skewers 5 pieces or more at a time, occasionally basting the meat with a little cooking oil using a stalk of lemongrass as a brush.

The tantalizing aroma of the sizzling meat that has been immersed for hours and hours in spices combines beautifully with the smoky smell of the charcoal fire, evoking an impatient grumble in your belly and unleashing a mini-flood from your salivary glands. When your order finally arrives, you ravenously sink your teeth into the tender, succulent meat and lose yourself in the medley of flavours bursting in your mouth. All thought of traffic jams, deadlines, homework, video cards that need replacement, and tomorrow’s make-or-break presentation are temporarily forgotten. Before you know it, you’ve polished off 10 sticks… and order another round!

Satay is usually served with nasi himpit (tightly packed boiled rice — hence the name ‘himpit‘, which means ‘packed tightly’ — which has been cut into cubes), slices of cucumber, slivers of onions and, of course, a bowl of kuah kacang (peanut sauce). And no spoons or forks whatsoever, just a serving spoon for the kuah kacang. So how do you eat it? Simple. First, you take a bit of the kuah kacang into your plate. Then pick out one skewer of meat — I go for the ones with a wee bit of fat and slightly burnt in places — and dip it into the kuah kacang, then bite off the piece of meat at the tip of the skewer. Now you can use the end of your stick to pick up a piece of cucumber and a small slice of onion. You dip it into the kuah kacang once again and take another bite, then stab a rice cube with the same stick and quickly put it into your mouth. Bite, dip, and repeat.

And what do you do once all the satay is finished and you still have a bit of kuah kacang and nasi himpit left? When in Malaysia, do what the Malaysians do and simply eat the nasi himpit with kuah kacang only. Yummy! A word of caution though: the kuah kacang contains a bit of chili, so if your taste buds are not used to the biting sensation of the chili’s capsaicin, start slow on the kuah kacang. You can always enjoy your satay plain, like what I used to do when I was still new in KL and couldn’t take any pedas food whatsoever.

Try not to eat the satay in hotels because what they have is the frozen, pre-grilled variety, which they simply reheat before serving. But if you must eat satay in a hotel, I suggest doing so in Concorde (beside Hard Rock Café), Crown Princess or Renaissance Hotels. The satay there is good — albeit from a reheated point of view — and so is the kuah kacang.

The most common types of satay that you can find everywhere are satay ayam (chicken satay) and satay daging (beef satay). The word ‘daging‘ is actually the general term for ‘meat’ but since Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, when people say ‘daging‘, they are usually referring to beef. Pork meat and pork products are sold in the clearly marked non-halal (‘Tidak Halal‘) section of supermarkets and is served in specific restaurants only, usually Chinese ones.

For the more adventurous, there’s also satay made out of chicken intestines or chicken liver and gizzard. They’re quite hard to come by and are quickly snapped up by satay aficionados. Since I’ve always considered myself to be quite adventurous when it comes to new things, I actually tried the chicken liver and gizzard combo, but I drew the line at chicken intestines. If you ask me, I’d rather stick to good ol’ satay ayam anytime!

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