Stuck on Sate: The Indonesian Grill

Serves: 5



Indonesia is a country of mind-boggling ethnic diversity, with 300 different races and religions. I visited two of the best known of the 12,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago-Java and Bali-and no matter where I went I found saté (pronounced "sah-tay"). Indonesia’s culinary common denominator, these tiny kebabs are served everywhere, from roadside pushcarts to swank hotel restaurants, as a snack or full meal, at religious festivals, sporting events, and at the beach, pretty much any time of the day or night.

Simple to make, easy to eat, economical, nutritious, infinitely varied in shape and flavor, satés are one of the most perfect foods devised by man. Not surprisingly, their popularity extends far beyond Indonesia’s borders. Satés have become an integral part of the Thai, Malaysian, and Singaporean diet ("satay" is the Malaysian spelling). In the last decade, they’ve been embraced with equal enthusiasm by contemporary American chefs.

A great many misconceptions surround saté, not the least of which is its main ingredient. To most Americans, saté means a small (although rather large by Indonesian standards) chicken or beef kebab served with peanut sauce. In Indonesia, however, there are hundreds of different types of satés to choose from, ranging from the tiny saté lalat (a beef and coconut saté made in such diminutive proportions, its name literally means "fly") to the saté buntel (a ground lamb saté so large it takes four skewers to hold it).

The saté-or at least the idea of grilling meat on a stick-seems to have originated with Arab spice traders, who arrived on the island of Sumatra in the eleventh century a.d. The Arabs introduced the Islamic religion to the region, and it’s possible they also introduced the Middle Easternnstyle kebab. To support this theory, scholars point to Padang, which was one of the first cities in Sumatra to adopt Islam. Saté padang became one of Indonesia’s most beloved satés and remains so to this day. (Of course, the idea of meat on a stick is so universal, it may have originated long before the arrival of the Arabs.)

If saté was inspired by the Arab kebab, it quickly acquired its own personality. First, it shrank. The average saté ayam (chicken saté) or saté kambing (lamb or goat saté) is about the size of your baby finger. This makes for great snacking: It’s not uncommon for an Indonesian to down 20 or 30 satés at a single sitting. And still not leave the table stuffed.

According to Jakarta tourism representative Yuni Syafril, the saté takes its name from a Sumatran word meaning "to stick, stab, or skewer." When you’re really angry with someone, explained Syafril you threaten to "saté" them. This sort of etymology is certainly not without precedent in the world of barbecue: Jamaican jerk, for example, is named for juk, the local dialect word for "to stab."

Searching Out the Best

Syafril was my host in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, and the largest city on Java, and he acquitted his duties with the hospitality for which Indonesians are famous. My first night there, he took me on the Indonesian equivalent of a bar crawl. Our first stop was the Jalan Sabang, a noisy street lined with restaurants (including the famous Padang restaurant Natrabu, not to mention a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Sizzler Steak House). Our destination wasn’t a dining establishment, however, but a tiny pushcart on bicycle wheels run by Nurul Phamid, a willowy young man with a faint moustache.

Like his father, who set up shop here in 1960, Phamid begins work at 5 p.m. and continues until 3 a.m. His stock in trade is saté ayam, which he prepares and grills by the light of a kerosene lamp. Phamid spends his afternoons threading tiny pieces of chicken thigh, liver, skin, and embryonic chicken eggs onto bamboo skewers not much bigger than broom straws.

When you place your order, Phamid prepares the marinade on the spot, mixing ketjap manis (sweet soy sauce), peanut sauce, a squeeze of lime juice, and chopped onion on a dinner plate. He dabs a handful of satés into the mixture, as you would a paint brush, then places them on a tiny charcoal brazier. A few waves of a bamboo fan-the most important piece of equipment in a saté man’s kitchen after the grill-and the coconut husk charcoal blazes to life. Phamid bastes the sizzling satés with his secret ingredient-rendered chicken fat. A moment later, they’re ready to eat.

The accompaniments to this splendid saté include a dollop of peanut sauce, a splash of ketjap manis, and a spoonful of sambal (fiery chili sauce), which are mixed together in a bowl. We were also served a steamed cake of sticky rice, called lontong, which is cooked in a banana leaf. We sprinkled everything with fried shallots. The cost for this princely feast-and it is princely-is 3,000 rupiahs, about 35 cents.

Now for Sate Pedang

Our next stop was a brightly lit sidewalk eatery called Gunung Sari, near Jakarta’s lively Kota district. Jakarta operates on a diurnal economy: daytime businesses close their shutters at nightfall and a veritable city of portable restaurants spring up on the sidewalks in front of them. Some, like Gunung Sari, are quite elaborate, complete with generators, fluorescent lighting systems, and white Formica tables. I peered into an enormous cauldron bubbling away over a charcoal fire to see the next dish I was to sample: saté pedang.

To make it, beef hearts, tongue, and tripe are simmered for several hours in a fiery broth flavored with ginger, galangal, turmeric, garlic, and palate-blasting doses of black pepper. The cooked meats are cut into tiny dice, threaded on skewers, and grilled over coconut husk charcoal. Meanwhile, the broth has been heavily thickened with rice flour into a starchy gravy. The kebabs and gravy are served on a banana leaf. To wash them down there’s iced tea chilled with a chips off a huge block of ice that sits on the sidewalk.

I must confess, I’m not a big fan of heart or tongue, and years of restaurant reviewing have conditioned me to disdain starchy gravies. But Gunung Sari’s saté padang was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. I understood why this rough-and-tumble eatery does such a lively business.

During the weeks I spent on the islands of Bali and Java, I sampled an astonishing array of satés. Sausage-size saté buntel (ground lamb and coriander satés) served with sweet-sour tamarind sauce. Tiny saté kalong ("flying fox" satés), a sweet, garlicky ground beef saté named for a nocturnal squirrel that comes out about the same time of day the saté vendors do in the city of Cirebon on the north coast of Java. One night, I feasted on what was the last kind of saté I expected to find on this staunchly Muslim island: saté babi manis (sweet pork saté). I ate it, logically enough, in Jakarta’s Chinatown. In Bali I enjoyed one of my all-time favorites, saté lilit, a spicy fish mousse flavored with exquisitely aromatic kaffir lime leaves and grilled on fresh lemongrass stalks.

Recipes for these satés and others appear throughout this book-some are better as appetizers, some are better as entrées, and most work well as either. Satés are the perfect grilled food for the new millennium: high in flavor, low in fat, great for casual eating and entertaining, and quick and easy to make. One traditionally eats a relatively small amount of meat in proportion to the vegetable-based accompaniments.

This Stuck on Sate: The Indonesian Grill recipe is from the The Barbecue Bible Cookbook. Download this Cookbook today.

More Recipes from the The Barbecue Bible Cookbook:
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A Griller's Guide to the World's Chiles
A Marinating Tip
A New French Paradox
A Special Word About Ground Meat, Burgers, and Sausages
A Traditional Barbacoa
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Barbecue Countdown
Barbecue from the Land of Morning Calm:
Basmati Rice Five Ways
Beef Grilling Chart *
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Bombay Tikka "Taco"
Butterflying a Flank Steak
Cleaning and Oiling the Grill
Cooking Hamburgers
Cooking With a Blowtorch
Cooking with Wood
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From Hamburg to Hoboken: A Brief History of the Hambuger
Grate Expectations: Some Tips on Grilling Vegetables
Grating Citrus Peel
Grilled Rujak
Grilling Indoors
Grinding It Out
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How to Butterfly Short Ribs for Korean-Style Grilling
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How to Dry Fennel Stalks
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How to Grill Perfect Chicken Halves and Quarters
How to Grill Perfect Fish Fillets
How to Grill Perfect Vegetables Every Time
How to Grill a Whole Grilled Fish
How to Grill the Perfect Fish
How to Grill the Perfect Whole Chiken
How to Grill the Perfect Whole Fish
How to Make Scallion Brushes
How to Peel and Devein Shrimp
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How to grill a perfect steak
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How to make ricw powder
How to prepare fresh coconut
How to rinse and dry Cilantro
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In pursuit of the best Tuscan Steak
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Lamb Grilling Chart
Larding the Beef
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Of Koftas, Lyulas, and Seekh
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Stalking the Elusive Grilled Snail
Stuck on Sate: The Indonesian Grill
The Afghan Grill
The Argentinian Grill
The Birth of the Kettle
The Brazilian Grill
The Four Styles of American Barbecue
The Indian Grill
The Japanese Grill
The Macanese Grill
The Moroccan Grill
The Most Famous Fish House in Indonesia
The Splendid Resaurant Karim
The Tale of Three Barbecues: The Thai Grill
The Ten Commandments of Perfect Grilling
The Turkish Grill
The Vietnamese Grill
To Render Chicken Fat
Types of Charcoal
Uruguay's Mercado Del Puerto
Vegetable Grilling Chart*
What to look for in a Grill
When You’re Feeling Less Than Brave
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Whole Fish, Tikin Xik Style

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