Satay: The Popular Malaysian Street Food Originated from Kajang, Selangor
Satay (or Sate) is one of the most popular street foods of Malaysia. It is a skewer of small pieces of spice marinated meat (often lamb, beef, chicken), cooked by grilling over a trough of open charcoal fire. Satay was originally developed by Javanese street vendors in Indonesia as an adaptation of the Indian kebabs brought in by the Muslim traders. The name is said to come from an ancient Tamil word ‘catai’, meaning ‘flesh’.
Satay can be easily found throughout Southeast Asia, all eaten in their own unique way, tweaked to suit the local preferences. In Malaysia, it is usually eaten with a satay dipping sauce that is thick, spicy and nutty with nasi himpit/ketupat (compressed rice cake). Cucumber and red onions are often served together as palate cleanser too.
If you ask Malaysians where to find the best Satay, many will direct you to Kajang, Selangor where it is also credited as the birthplace of the Malaysian Satay. According to local food chroniclers, Satay was first popularised in Kajang by Javanese immigrants, Haji Tasmin bin Sakiban and his younger brother Rono in 1910s. Intially working as labourers in estates and paddy fields, they ventured into food business selling rice balls and rice cakes, and eventually started selling Satay.
At the time, the Sakiban brothers carried the Satay over their shoulder and sold to people at rubber estates and at customers’ houses. They slowly modified their Satay recipe, according to the feedbacks from their customers. In 1940s, they upgraded to using pushcart and selling outside of a kopitiam, usually in the evenings or late at night, grilling on hot charcoal and serving their Satay under gas-lamps. Customers would enjoy the Satay in the shop or sitting nearby the pushcart. This trend is still prominent in Malaysia today.
A great Satay has a well-balanced texture and flavour. The meat used must give enough structure, yet still be succulent even after cooking on hot charcoal. Nowadays there are also many variations of meat used, depending on its region and community. Apart from the usual lamb, beef and chicken, there are also fish, rabbit, goat, venison, pork, offal (intestines, chicken heart, chicken gizzard, bishop’s nose etc.) and even exotic meat like crocodile and ostrich.
The marinade for Satay is also an important part of the recipe. It is marinated with a variety of herbs, spices and seasonings, such as lemongrass, turmeric, fennel, cumin, ginger, coriander, chilli, garlic, shallots, salt and palm sugar. With these ingredients infusing into the meat overnight, the grilled meat produces amazing aroma and bursts with wonderful and robust flavours.
The method of cooking over charcoal is an essential element. The traditional Satay barbecue grill is long, thin and portable, making this the perfect street food. It’s a dish best suited to cooking outdoors, due to the abundance of smoke and fire generated from the drippings of the meat hitting the charcoal. The smoke not only infuses the meat with a smoky fragrance, it also becomes a calling card for your nose if you are ever near a Satay stall.
Last but not least, the Satay dipping sauce is the kingmaker. The sauce must have a good balance of all the flavours namely sweetness, spiciness, sourness and savouriness to tantalize your tastebuds. It is usually made from ingredients like roasted peanuts, tamarind paste, chillies, garlic, shallots, galangal, lemongrass, palm sugar and salt. This thick, rich and crunchy sauce complements really well with Satay.
Satay can easily be found in Malaysia, especially on the street, in restaurants and night markets. For a more authentic experience, many people would specifically travel to Kajang, the Satay City of Malaysia.