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How to Make Satay Sauce

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Some of the ingredients for satay sauce.

Satay1 sauce is Indonesian in origin and also known as peanut sauce or peanut butter sauce, after its main ingredient. It's usually served with satay, pieces of meat (or whole shrimp) grilled on a small wooden skewer, but it's also very good in (vegetarian) rice or vegetable dishes, with other kinds of meat, as dip sauce or bread spread. As an easy-to-make, rich and strong-tasting sauce, it nevertheless has its subtleties.

There are a few reasons why this recipe will not give exact amounts:

  • The numerous varieties of the basic ingredients make it impractical.

  • The thickness of the sauce should depend on the dish you want to serve it with: quite runny for rice and vegetables, medium-thick for meat, thick for dip and spread. Different thickness means different proportions.

Fortunately, the sauce is easy to modify while cooking. Just experiment a bit until you get it right.

The basic sauce

Use a saucepan that's fit for both boiling and frying, with a volume of about one litre. For ingredients you need:

  • Water.

  • Peanut butter - whichever type and brand you like.

  • Sambal. This is Indonesian chilli sauce, of which there are dozens of varieties. The most basic one, sambal ulek2, consists of chopped chillies and salt. Others contain extra spices or are fried, or both. For this sauce, ulek is good, as are sambals with vinegar, lime3 or other fresh-tasting sour additions. Vegetarians might want to avoid sambals with trassi (fermented shrimp-paste).

  • Ketjap4. Indonesian soy sauce. Its two main types are ketjap manis (sweet) and ketjap asin (salty). Use manis; it is salty enough, and sweetness is exactly what you want to add to the peanut butter.

Salt is not required, as peanut butter, ketjap and most sambals already contain it.

Put the pan with about half a litre of water on a low flame and add several tablespoons of peanut butter. Stir until the peanut butter is dissolved (you might want to use a whisk), then turn up the flame to bring the sauce to a simmer. Add sambal and ketjap to taste while it is heating up. Keep stirring to prevent the sauce sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning. Turn down the flame again as soon as it simmers. Don't be too quick to think the sauce is too runny; it will thicken after a few minutes. When it does, your satay sauce is ready.

If the taste is not to your liking, you can easily modify it at any time by adding any of the ingredients. If it's too hot, for instance, just mix some peanut butter and water in a bowl, and stir it in.

Refining

There are several ways to add some finesse.

  • Often, satay sauce is made with a mix of water and coconut milk, which can be bought in small tins. The more coconut milk you use, the sweeter the sauce. Using cow's milk instead of water is another possibility. It adds smoothness to the sauce, but also greatly increases the risk of it burning. For non-vegetarians meat stock is an option. And if you feel really adventurous, how about trying strong Lapsang Souchong tea as a basis? Be careful, though. Too strong and the tannins make the tea bitter. Not strong enough and the smoky taste you want will be completely overpowered by the peanut butter.

  • Onion (chopped) and garlic (chopped or squeezed with a garlic press) are excellent additions, as are:

  • Ginger: fresh (peeled and grated) or a few pieces of stem ginger in syrup (diced very finely). Fresh ginger is best, but the syrup from stem ginger can come in handy, too (see below). If neither is available, you can use powdered ginger (also known as djah√©).

  • Cumin: either seeds which you grind up yourself, or powdered (djinten or djintan).

  • Moist sugar (brown) or ginger syrup.

  • Lime juice6 can be used to get a sour tang. This is not advisable when using cow's milk as a basis (as it could curdle the sauce), but can be very tasty when using water and coconut milk. An alternative for lime juice is tamarind. It is commercially available as a paste and as concentrated juice. The concentrate is much easier to use; the paste needs to be soaked in water and sieved, as it contains fibres and hard seeds.

So, for a more refined satay sauce:

Chop the onion (finely for smooth sauce, coarsely for thicker sauce). Put the pan on a high flame with some neutral-tasting cooking oil, such as sunflower oil. Fry the chopped onion until it's glassy, then add the spices (ginger, garlic, cumin) and fry them too, for a few seconds. Now add some sugar and/or a dash of ginger syrup and let it caramelise, but not for too long. The sugar will deepen the colour of the sauce; the syrup will strengthen the ginger flavour. Finally, add a dash of ketjap, then lower the flame and pour in the water. Dissolve the peanut butter, mix in the coconut milk, add sambal, then lime juice or tamarind concentrate if you want to, and, if necessary, some more ketjap to taste. Bring to a simmer until it thickens, modify if needed, and presto.

Enjoy!

1Pronounced 'sah-tay', with the second syllable stressed.2Also spelled oelek.3The fruit, not the mineral.4The similarity with the word ketchup is no coincidence.55Though ketjap does not contain any fish, as the Guide Entry on ketchup seems to suggest.6Or lemon juice.

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