Singapore Infopedia


Satay (sate in Bahasa Indonesia1) is a dish similar to kebabs in that it is made of cubes of skewered meat that is grilled and eaten with a peanut sauce dip.2 Tracing its origins to the Arabs,3 satay has been adapted to the multicultural palates of Asians, with various spicy sauces and different ways of marinating the meat.4

Arabs were known to skewer their meat on swords before roasting it and Middle Eastern nomads would barbecue their meat on metal skewers in a dish known as kebab.5 The spice trade brought Arab traders to Southeast Asia, which led to the spread of Arabic cuisine to Indonesia, and eventually to Malaya.6 The kebab can also be found in India and other countries such as Greece and Turkey.7 However, a key adaptation of the dish in Asia is that wooden rather than metal skewers are used.8

Satay sauce is made from ground peanuts, and other spices such as coriander and cumin seeds.9 Various seasonings are used to marinate the pieces of meat and the specially-made peanut sauce is usually served as a dip together with the grilled meat.10

The commonly used meats in satay are beef, mutton, lamb and chicken.11 Among non-Muslims, pork is also used.12 The small cuts of meat are marinated in various spices that also tenderise the meat.13 They are then skewered through sharp, wooden sticks.14 Dried, thin stems of the coconut leaf were originally used as satay sticks.15 But, these days bamboo sticks are used.16

The satay is barbecued over a flaming charcoal fire and constantly brushed with oil for a tantalising glaze, until well-browned.17 The sticks of grilled meat are then served with a bowl of peanut dip and cuts of cucumber and onion.18 Several sticks can be eaten at one go due to the small, bite-sized pieces of meat. Satay is often accompanied by ketupat (steamed rice) wrapped in woven coconut leaf packets.19

Some types of satay come with a much sweeter flavour with a twirl of kechap manis (sweet sauce) added to the peanut sauce.20 Other spices such as galangal (a type of ginger) and finely cut dashes of the limau purut (kaffir lime) leaf further heighten the flavour of the satay and its sauce.21

Satay in Singapore
The travelling satay man, a street hawker who prepared his delicacy with a portable charcoal grill, was a familiar sight in Singapore up to the late 1970s.22 These roaming peddlers later set up permanent stalls by the roadside.23 The Satay Club, a collection of stalls hawking solely satay in the evenings at the edge of the park at the Esplanade, was a popular dining destination until it was demolished in 1995 to make way for new developments.24  

Today, satay is sold in many hawker centres and whole industries have grown around it.25 There are now wholesalers that prepare uncooked satay for hawkers, taking over a tedious task that used to be the sole duty of the satay hawker. In 1995, Hainanese Poh Kee Satay became the first company to franchise their satay using a specially designed machine that could skewer up to 30,000 sticks a day. There are also many companies that cater satay for parties.26

A local variant of the traditional satay sauce has the peanut mix topped with pineapple puree.27 Another innovation in recent times is shrimp satay.28 Prawns are coated in minced garlic, skewered and barbecued, but not served with the peanut sauce.29 Satay has also inspired other dishes such as satay bee hoon (rice vermicelli with spicy peanut sauce) which contains satay’s unmistakeable ingredients.30

In 2007, Kopitiam at Lau Pa Sat made the world’s longest satay, which made it into the Guinness Book of Records. It was 140.02 m in length with 150 kg of chicken.31

Suchitthra Vasu

1. Magdalen Lum, “From Swords and Skewers to Restaurants Dish,” Straits Times, 9 March 1997, 6; Natalin Ling, “Long, Lean, Tender Satay,” Straits Times, 29 October 1983, 5; Stanley Street, “On the Margin,” Straits Times, 18 September 1952, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Lum, “From Swords and Skewers to Restaurants Dish”; “Three Styles to Choose From,” Straits Times, 6 June 2004, 28 (From NewspaperSG); Rosalind Mowe, ed., Southeast Asian Specialties: A Culinary Journey (Konemann: Culinaria, 1999), 166. (Call no. RSING 641.5959 SOU)
3. Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166.
4. Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166; “Three Styles to Choose From”; Ling, “Long, Lean, Tender Satay”; Tan Lee Leng, “Skewer That Meat,” Straits Times, 22 January 1983, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Lum, “From Swords and Skewers to Restaurants Dish”; Barbara Sheen, Foods of Indonesia (United States of America: KidHaven Press, 2012), 26 (Call no. RSEA 641.59598 SHE); Alice Yen-Ho, At the South-east Asian Table (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 14. (Call no. RSING 394.10959 HO-[CUS])
6. Lum, “From Swords and Skewers to Restaurants Dish.”
7. Tan, “Skewer That Meat.”
8. Sheen, Foods of Indonesia, 25; David Burton, Savouring the East (London: Faber & Faber, 1996), 42–43 (Call no. R 641.595 BUR); Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166.
9. Lum, “From Swords and Skewers to Restaurants Dish”; Wendy Hutton, The Food of Malaysia (Singapore: Periplus Editions, 2005), 82. (Call no. RSEA 641.59595 FOO)
10. Ling, “Long, Lean, Tender Satay”; Hutton, Food of Malaysia, 82.
11. Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166; Evelyn Yap, “Satay Seller First Singaporean Hawker to Franchise Grilled Meats,” Straits Times, 16 January 1995, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Yu Yoon Gee, Nyonya Food, Satay and Padang Curry Cooking (Singapore: Tiger Press, 1976), 62, 64, 66. (Call no. RCLOS 641.8653 YU)
12. Margaret Chan, “An Old Recipe Adds Fillip to Satay Dish,” Straits Times, 22 November 1987, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166; Lum, “From Swords and Skewers to Restaurants Dish.”
13. Ling, “Long, Lean, Tender Satay”; Chan, “An Old Recipe Adds Fillip to Satay Dish.” 
14. Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166.
15. Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166; Sheen, Foods of Indonesia, 25.
16. Haron Abdul Rahman, “Amazing Features of the Bamboo Plant,” Straits Times, 9 June 1987, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166; Hutton, Food of Malaysia, 82.
18. Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166; Lum, “From Swords and Skewers to Restaurants Dish.”
19. Ling, “Long, Lean, Tender Satay”; Chan, “An Old Recipe Adds Fillip to Satay Dish”;  Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166; Lum, “From Swords and Skewers to Restaurants Dish.”
20. “Eat,” Straits Times, 7 July 2005, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Three Styles to Choose From”; Charmaine The Complete Asian Cookbook – Indonesia, Malaysia & Singapore (Australia: Hardie Grant Books, 2011), 197 (Call no. RSING 641.595 SOL); Lee Hun Ching, “Like Satay? Join the Club,” Straits Times, 22 July 2001, P8. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166; Chan, “An Old Recipe Adds Fillip to Satay Dish”; Lum, “From Swords and Skewers to Restaurants Dish.”
23. Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166.
24. “Satay Club Hawkers Have to Move Out by April Next Year,” Straits Times, 2 November 1994, 24; “Peng's English,” Straits Times, 24 August 1980, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Lum, “From Swords and Skewers to Restaurants Dish.”
26. Yap, “Satay Seller First Singaporean Hawker to Franchise Grilled Meats.”
27. Lum, “From Swords and Skewers to Restaurants Dish”; Chan, “An Old Recipe Adds Fillip to Satay Dish”; Yap, “Satay Seller First Singaporean Hawker to Franchise Grilled Meats.”
28. Mowe, Southeast Asian Specialties, 166.
29. Sheen, Foods of Indonesia, 26.
30. Lee Geok Boi, “Bottled Gravy for Satay Dish,” New Nation, 30 August 1981, 14; Jenny Tan, "Gravy Train,” Business Times, 14 November 2009, 42. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Longest Satay,” Guinness World of Records, accessed 24 July 2017; “Yummy Record,” New Paper, 24 July 2007, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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