Indian-Style Chicken Satay

This won't turn into a food blog permanently, promise.

So, everyone has enjoyed satay, those beautiful skewers of rippling grilled meat, bright gold from their marinade, at a Malay or Thai restaurant. What makes them so delicious?

They are impossible to make, I say, and the sheer unfamiliarity makes them fascinating. Or, rather, the seasonings that go into satay marinade are hard to come by in an American kitchen—galangal, lemongrass, tamarind, fresh turmeric—and some are strange to American tastes; one source calls for a small amout of belacan, Malay fermented shrimp paste.

Being that I live in an Indian kitchen, though, I thought I could approximate. Looking around, I found that the marinade's built around a foundation of equal parts cumin and coriander. That's easy enough. Turmeric on top of that, for the yellow colour; easy. Sugar. Garlic. After this the ingredient lists start to diverge. Lemongrass! one cries. Fish sauce, lemon juice! another declaims.

It seems like these are establishing the sour and salty aspects of the marinade. I went for salt and Worcestershire sauce (I have fish sauce, but I'm serving people who don't like it) for salty, and tamarind for sourness; as I recall, it's also a fair tenderiser for meats, which will be nice. I find lemon toughens things, and lemongrass imparts a lot of fragrance but not much taste. One recipe calls for anise, which I thought intriguing, and another for chili powder—neither seems particularly authentic but they are welcome.

The recipe I ended up using looked something like this:

  • 1 teaspoon each: Cumin, coriander, red chile powder*, sugar, turmeric
  • 1 clove: Garlic
  • 1 pod: Star anise
  • A splash: Tamarind concentrate, Worcestershire sauce (I didn't really measure these; start with a half teaspoon of each and adjust up.)
  • 1 Tablespoon: Vegetable oil
  • As needed: Salt & pepper, water

Grind the star anise and spices (except the turmeric, it'll stain your spice grinder) together to make a find powder; mince the garlic or pound it to a paste. Add to the sugar, tamarind, turmeric, Worcestershire sauce, and oil. Mix well, adding water to make a smooth thin paste. Adjust seasoning if needed. Marinate 1 pound of meat overnight in this marinade.

The anise is very intense here; though it seems like cooking it subdues the almost overpowering smell of the marinade, it is a little stronger than I liked. I'd use half a pod (four lobes) next time. I'd also increase the amount of chile powder; the spiciness didn't come through the other flavors at all. Nonetheless, it looked exactly right, and the flavor came reasonably close to restaurant-style satay, so I think it'll be even better with the changes I described. Possibly also add salt.

It was nice on ciabatta with peanut sauce and mâche, but the greens were a little too tender for the sandwich overall. Some wilted spinach might have done the job more gracefully, if less beautifully.

*: This refers to the powder of dried red chiles, not the chile-based spice mixture.


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