Feeding The Nation
Sate: The Ever-changing World of Sate
Words by Petty Elliott
Few can fail to recognise the aroma of meat or seafood grilling over an open fire. The tastily marinated cubes of meat or minced fresh seafood on a skewer over hot coconut charcoal can be irresistible.
One of Indonesia’s favourites, sate (satay) is probably the dish most associated worldwide with this archipelago of flavour. Today a national dish, its origins go back to the arrival of Indian and Arab traders in Java in the early 19th century.
The humble sate is well known not only among our Southeast Asian neighbours, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, but also further afield. Based on a simple cooking technique, only the flavours vary depending on where you are. Take yakitori in Japan, or shish kebabs in the Middle East, Turkey or even Spain. What about shashlik, famous in the Caucasus; sosatie from South Africa; or chuan in China? Each is subtly different, but widely enjoyed.
Java, home to sate
Across Indonesia’s most populated island, Java, chicken and goat lead the way among a wide variety of sate flavours. And even more variety is available as you travel from city to city, so the chicken sate of Probolinggo or Ponorogo offer small but distinct differences. Sometimes cumin and roasted candlenuts are added into the peanut sauce, or the size of the cut of the meat is varied.
Sate ayam Madura, betraying its origins from the island of the same name northeast of Java, offers a delicious sweet succulence, the chicken having been marinated with sweet soya sauce, a touch of salt and lime juice. There are even skewer choices to be made, some favouring bamboo, others coconut wood – but the special satisfaction from any sate lies in the rich peanut sauce, a mixture of finely ground peanuts, roasted candlenuts, plus the tang from kaffir lime and the sweetness of soya sauce. Some add a touch of chilli for an extra layer of flavour. This most simple of recipes with relatively few ingredients has universal appeal; little wonder then that according to the readers of CNN Travel, sate is rated 14th among the world’s 50 best foods. And the first? Why, it’s another Indonesian dish, rendang.
Traditionally chicken sate would be inclusive of every part, including meat, skin and fat. Today, most diners prefer just the thigh or breast of the chicken and roasted rather than deep-fried peanuts for the sauce, a healthier option.
Sate loso from Pemalang, Central Java, uses goat or buffalo gently simmered in spices and herbs before applying the meat to the barbecue – best served with peanut sauce and chillies, but without soya sauce. Sate tegal features cubes of young goat, similar to sate buntel from Surakarta, Central Java, which features minced goat meat covered with goat fat and served with sweet soya sauce and chopped fresh chillies. Sate kerang uses cockles, famous in the area of Sidoarjo, East Java. It is slow braised with spices and herbs in a hot pan, barbecued and normally served with lontong compressed rice and sambal kecap, a sauce of sweet soya sauce with chopped chillies and kaffir lime. Sate kere from Solo is a mixture of tempe gembus (from the residue of tofu) mixed with offal and once again pre-cooked with spices and herbs, then barbecued. A very old recipe, it reminds us to avoid waste by making full use of every ingredient.
Sate kalong literally means ‘bat’; however, the reference is not to the meat used (which is normally buffalo) but the late hour at which it is traditionally served in and around the port city of Cirebon on the north coast of Java. Travel just two hours west and inland to Purwakarta to enjoy sate marrangi, marinated with more spices and flavours including ground coriander seeds, fresh ginger, aromatic ginger, lemongrass, shallots, garlic and chillies mixed with sweet soya sauce, lime juice and palm sugar. This delightful version is served with a sambal of fermented soya, known as oncom. And last but not least on Java, the capital city of Jakarta is famous for sate kambing (goat), especially good in the Kebun Jeruk area of the city.
Sate around the archipelago
Stepping outside Java to West Sumatra we find another favourite, sate Padang. Liver and heart of beef are boiled in spices until tender, then mixed on the skewer with small beef cubes. The stock from cooking is then used to make the sauce, thickened with rice flour into a rich curry packed with flavours associated with the Middle East or India. Alongside Java, North Sumatra has its own version of sate kerang (cockles), braised in a distinctive spicy sauce, a reduction of many spices, chillies, shallots and garlic. It shows similarities to rendang sauce without the addition of coconut cream.
The island of Bali has always been unique, and so too is its approach to this national dish. Sate lilit is mixed seafood, minced and combined with spices, herbs and finely grated coconut, moulded by hand around sticks of fresh lemongrass – in contrast to using the usual wooden skewer-and served without sauce. Next door on the island of Lombok you can enjoy sate pusut, which is made of minced beef and looks similar to sate lilit from Bali.
To the far north, on the tip of Sulawesi, the people of Manado have developed a pork sate with a spicy and tangy rica-rica flavour embodying ginger, chillies and lemon cui or calamansi citrus. There are no doubt several more local varieties, but you get the idea!
The contemporary sate
And then there is sate taichan – a phenomenon that has grown widely in Jakarta over the last few years. There is a story that a Japanese customer was interested in cooking his own sate but preferred not to use sweet soya and peanut sauce. He marinated the chicken pieces with salt, lime juice and sambal to create a spicy and tangy flavour that has really caught local imaginations, so much so that many sate taichan vendors have appeared around Jakarta. The trend has also rubbed off on chefs in top establishments to create their own versions of sate taichan using different meats.
Yes, sate is definitely here to stay – from versions using top-grade Wagyu beef at staggering prices in exclusive restaurants, to more affordable offerings in malls and food courts. One thing is clear, sate is no longer just a street-vendor affair. Today it is an iconic dish and one that continues to evolve. Why not develop your own and add to the conversation on Indonesia’s favourite dish?
A self-taught Indonesian chef and one of Indonesia’s foremost food writers, Petty Elliott has pioneered the archipelago’s cuisine as it blends with modern influences. Her latest cookbook, Jakarta Bites, published in July 2016, explores the capital’s vibrant street-food scene. Jakarta Bites was named the world’s Best Street Food Book at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2017.