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As soon as my husband, my niece Liora and I stepped into the Malaysia pavilion of the All-Asia Expo at the Los Angeles convention center, we were greeted with smiles and with satays.
From our very first bites, we found these mini kebabs of chicken and beef just delightful. They had layers of flavor: the meat was soaked in a spiced soy marinade, then grilled while being basted with more of the same mixture. It was served with a peppery peanut sauce with a pleasing hint of sweetness.
We moved on to more Malaysian taste explorations. I hadn't been overly excited about jam lately, but here we sampled jams that were bursting with flavor. The honeydew melon jam was wonderful. So was the brown coconut jam made with brown sugar, the green coconut jam flavored with an herb called pandanus leaf, and the jam made from rambutan, a notable cousin of litchis.
I remembered that a few years ago, the subject of Malaysian food came up at another food expo, where we met Nili Goldstein, the chef-owner of Magic Carpet, a celebrated Yemenite restaurant in Los Angeles. She commented on how much the parathas at the Malaysian booth resembled the yummy Yemenite flatbread, malawah, and I remarked that it is also similar to the parathas available at Indian eateries.
I thought this was a curious coincidence, but when I looked into it I learned that Malaysian cooking is a fusion of influences. According to Jennifer Brennan, the author of "The Cuisines of Asia" (St. Martin's/Marek, 1984), the population of Malaysia is composed of Malays, Chinese and a mixture of Indian, Arab and other minorities. The cuisine reflects this mix. That might help explain the paratha-malawah connection.
Indeed, Malaysia's quintessential dish, the satay (also spelled sate), may have Middle Eastern roots. Brennan writes that the satay is one of the universal snacks of Southeast Asia. "Although both Thailand and Malaysia claim it as its own, its Southeast Asian origin was in Java, Indonesia. There satay was developed from the Indian kebab brought by the Muslim traders. Even India cannot claim its origin, for there it was a legacy of Middle Eastern influence." Perhaps this culinary heritage is the reason why popular Middle Eastern flavors like garlic, cumin, coriander and turmeric often accent the marinade or the sauce of satays.
Yet satays have a character of their own, stemming from the use of soy sauce, fresh ginger, lime juice and lots of fresh, hot red chili peppers. Frequently satays are accompanied by a thick peanut sauce, usually made with coconut milk. Recipes vary from one village to another - instead of peanut sauce, some serve a soy-based sauce or a curry sauce.
Unlike some kebabs, satays do not have vegetables alternated with the meat on the skewers. Instead, fresh vegetables are served as an accompaniment. Favorites are cucumbers, sweet peppers, onions and tomatoes.
In recent years, satays have become fashionable in the west, and you'll find them at trendy parties in North America. In Secrets from a Caterer's Kitchen (HP Books, 2000), California caterer Nicole Aloni suggests serving them on a platter lined with fresh coriander and shaved cucumber, and sprinkling them liberally with chopped peanuts.
Satays make terrific appetizers, with the sauce served on the side for dipping, or as entrees with hot steamed rice. Served either way, your satays will most likely elicit smiles of satisfaction.
The charm of these grilled marinated chicken skewers is the peanut dipping sauce, which is slightly sweet and sour and slightly hot. Traditionally it is made from ground fried peanuts, but today many use peanut butter because it's easier.
700 grams boneless chicken breasts,
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. ground coriander
1â„2 tsp. ground cumin
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1â„2 cup minced onion
4 medium garlic cloves, minced
3â„4 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk, chicken broth or water
1â„2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1â„2 cup peanut butter
1 to 2 Tbsps. soy sauce
1 tsp. brown sugar, or more to taste
1 tsp. strained fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
11â„2 tsps. grated peeled gingerroot
Sliced cucumbers and onions
Cut chicken in thin strips, about 2 to 2.5 cm. wide and about 5 cm. long. Put in a bowl. Add marinade ingredients and mix well. Cover and marinate for 1-2 hours in refrigerator. If using bamboo skewers, soak them in cold water 30 minutes so they won't burn.
For peanut sauce, heat oil in a saucepan. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 7 minutes or until softened. Add garlic and saute for 1â„2 minute. Add coconut milk and red pepper flakes and bring to a boil. Remove pan from heat. Add peanut butter in 4 portions, whisking after each addition. Bring to a simmer. If sauce is too thin, simmer 2 to 3 minutes or until thickened; if it is too thick, stir in 1 or 2 tablespoons water. Stir in soy sauce, sugar, lemon juice and gingerroot. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more sugar or lemon juice if needed.
Thread chicken on skewers. Brush with marinade. If using bamboo skewers, put foil on ends to prevent burning.
Reheat sauce over low heat, cover and keep warm. Preheat broiler or prepare grill. Put skewered chicken on lightly oiled broiler rack set about 10 cm (4 inches) from flame or on lightly oiled grill above glowing coals. Grill or broil about 6 minutes, turning often. To check, cut into a large piece - chicken should be white inside, not pink.
Serve on a platter, with small bowls of peanut sauce, and with sliced cucumbers and onions.
Makes 4 to 6 appetizer or 3 or 4 main-course servings.