In our experience Westerners are most familiar with satay, small portions of grilled meat on a stick, of all the culinary treats Indonesia offers. Sadly, for most the experience goes only as far as the bags of pre-marinated, frozen chicken and beef satays available in unholy quantities at their local warehouse retailer and they likely remain unaware of the food’s exotic origin. Slathered with some kind of included plastic-pouch-bound, sweetened, runny peanut butter masquerading as “peanut sauce,” these satays fall woefully short of their potential.
For Indonesians, sate has a special place at the table. At any selamatan, or large celebratory gathering, it is just about expected that sate of some kind will be served, and hosts are willing to oblige for good reason. Among foods that can be prepared in both high quality and quantity, satays are hard to beat. Ground meat or fish or strips of marinated meat are pressed onto skewers in snack-sized portions and grilled over coals for just a few minutes until charred but tender. For the same reason, satays are popular with street food vendors as well.
Each region of Indonesia has its own endemic sate, like Bali’s sate pentul (made from ground pork) or sate lilit ikan (ground fish), Sumatran sate Padang (made from beef offal, such as tongue and tripe, with a bright yellow sauce), or Maduran sate Madura (chicken or mutton with a dark, sweet peanut sauce), to name just a few. Other variations can be made with just about any meat imaginable (and some not-so-imaginable) including lamb, goat, water buffalo, rabbit, horse, migratory sea bird, turtle, cobra, python, eel, shrimp, milkfish, shellfish, or even quail eggs.
Sate pusut (recipe follows) is a specialty of the island of Lombok, just east of Java. Ground beef (or sometimes chicken) is mixed with an array of aromatics, spices, and herbs, and formed into a sausage-like shape over a skewer. It is grilled over coals, during which time it is brushed with a little oil in order to develop a crispier exterior, and served without sauce. It sounds a little like a spicy, stick-based meat loaf so naturally we were eager to start.
adapted from The Indonesian Kitchen: Recipes and Stories by Sri Owen
SERVES 2 OR 3 AS A MAIN COURSE, OR 4 TO 6 AS AN APPETIZER
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 1/4 tsp kapǐ, fermented shrimp paste (for more on kapǐ see our recipes for Cambodian amok trei and Burmese mohinga)
- 1 Tbs coriander seed, whole
- 1 shallot, finely diced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 Tbs sambal oelek, pulverized chili sauce (a domestic variety is produced by the Huy Fong Foods company, also the makers of the famous Sriracha hot sauce)
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 3 Tbs coconut milk
- vegetable oil for brushing
First, the beef and lemon juice were mixed together in a large bowl and set aside to marinate while we worked on the rest of the satay mixture. The coriander seed and fermented shrimp paste (which smells like something we shouldn’t be eating, but we bravely sallied forth) were measured into our Korean porcelain mortar:
…and pulverized with the wooden pestle until ground coarsely and combined:
The coriander mixture was dumped into a small mixing bowl with the remaining ingredients:
…and mixed thoroughly to form a paste. The paste was added to the large bowl with the meat:
…and mixed by hand until everything was evenly distributed. The bowl was covered and refrigerated for an hour to firm up some and for the flavors to marry. Meanwhile, the mortar and pestle were immediately scrubbed thoroughly to remove any trace of kapǐ, lest its ugly head be reared unexpectedly in whatever we use the utensil for next.
Once we were ready to form our satay, we discovered that we had only three metal skewers on hand. Ideally we would have about fifteen to twenty bamboo skewers, soaked in water to prevent burning, around which we could shape one- or two-bite satay. Undeterred, we decided that we would simply form three larger satay on the skewers we had and accept that they would be somewhat unorthodox. To that end, the meat was divided into three equal portions:
The first portion was shaped into as elongated a sausage shape as the skewer would allow, pressing firmly to ensure a snug fit:
The other two satay were formed and placed on our roasting pan’s rack placed inside its lid:
These were chilled in the refrigerator for about forty-five minutes to allow the fats in the meat a chance to firm somewhat, hopefully rendering our satay logs a little sturdier for the effort.
Some wintry weather here in Olympia, Washington made grilling outside unfeasible, so we decided to broil our satay in the oven instead. The roasting pan rack-lid combination doubles as our go-to broiling rig, so all we had to do was start the broiler, move the top oven rack to its second-highest setting (the top slot, we feared, might place the satay too close to the broiler, burning the outside before the middle was cooked through). After letting the broiler heat for about five minutes, we placed our satay in the over. After two-and-a-half minutes, they looked ready to turn over:
From here on, the satay were turned every minute to minute-and-a-half, afterwards brushing their tops sparingly (we didn’t want a greasy mess) with a little vegetable oil. After about six-and-a-half minutes total, they were ready to come out:
The best part of a meat loaf, in our opinion, is the crusty top. These satay, being just an inch-and-a-half or so in diameter, are pretty much all crusty top while maintaining tenderness is the center. Intensely spiced in a way we don’t encounter too often, the texture and flavors were hard to put down. It is difficult to imagine walking through a Javanese market without stopping to pick up a handful of these delicious meat sticks.