You think you know satay? You don’t know shit.
That’s Momma Lewishambles’ approach to satay, though of course she’d never be so coarse as to swear at you. She’d simply raise her eyebrows and say “oh that’s interesting” before mentally noting that you’re a pervert who uses peanut butter in a satay sauce instead of GRINDING THE NUTS YOURSELF YOU FILTH MONGER.
Not that she does it anymore. Or that she ever did. No, one of the benefits of having children, it seems, is that they take the place of sous-chefs for the cook in a hurry. My childhood was interspersed with sessions of being given a pestle, mortar and a bowl of roasted peanuts and told to “bash bash bash in front of the gofer” (I should clarify that I mean Gordon the Gofer and this was Saturday morning telly). This was, strangely enough, my grounding in the art of cookery even though, bless her, Momma L basically refuses to write down a proper recipe for any of her signature dishes and so I’m left to cobble them together using ingenuity, spying and sometimes, just making it up.
Sadly, small children willing to perform menial tasks being in short supply in Casa Lewishambles, instead I now opt for the convenience of making satay easy with a cheap mini-chopper or “whizzer”, in Momma L’s oft-idiosyncratic english. I don’t think it’s cheating, or if it is, she’s too kind to tell me so.
Real satay sauce is NOT made with peanut butter. Nor is it just curried peanuts. It’s a slow-simmered, richly aromatic sauce made with a mix of medium-ground peanuts which is ready when thick and creamy with red oil floating on the top. It requires patience, specialist ingredients and a sit overnight for the flavour to develop. But it is also one of the most satisfying and delicious malaysian recipes to master. I haven’t mastered it yet, but live in hope.
Momma L, this one’s for you (with my apologies for being tweaked to my tastes…).
Makes a ton – enough for 6 people or 8 if only having as a sauce for chicken.
300g raw, skinned peanuts (if you can only find skin-on, that’s fine. But see the note on frying)
2 dried chillies, deseeded and soaked for 10 min in boiling water
pinch belachan or shrimp paste*
1/2 clove garlic
oil for frying
1 tsp belachan or shrimp paste
1 1/2 cloves garlic
a 2-inch piece of ginger
sambal oelek (chili paste with seeds)
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp coriander
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp ground chilli
1/2 cup tamarind juice** or 1 tbsp tamarind paste
1 cup coconut milk
1 stick lemongrass
2 finely sliced lime leaves
2-3 slices root ginger
Palm sugar (brown if you don’t have it), to taste
salt, to taste
a mild vinegar, to taste (I use japanese rice vinegar as it’s sweet)
for the peanuts:
Take a large saucepan or wok and put about an inch-deep worth’s of oil in there, then heat to sizzling. Tip in the peanuts and essentially fry them off. This is why you want skinless, because you can prevent burning more easily. Keep them moving and make sure they cook evenly – it will take about 2-3 minutes with a good heat. What you want to achieve is a sexy golden tan on your peanuts, when they smell good, but before they go brown, because brown = burned. You can also try dry-roasting them in the oven, or grilling, but every time I’ve tried it I end up with a burnt peanut disaster on my hands.
Once this is done, tip the peanuts and oil into a sieve set over a bowl – the drained oil is great for the base of your sauce and prevents wastage.
It should go without saying, but don’t try to grind the nuts straight away – they are super hot!
Once they’re cool, put them in a food processor with the chillies and belachan, and grind to a coarse meal. I’ve added some pictures so you get the idea. The aim is to create small, tasty bits rather than gravel or paste. So be careful with it.
Once you’re done, you’re only going to need about 2 cups of this – the reason I give these amount is because – frankly – it’s how much I know works for the amounts. Fortunately, the leftovers freeze BEAUTIFULLY and mean you have peanut sauce on tap. Yay!
For the sauce base:
Take your onions, garlic, ginger and sambal and grind to a paste in your processor. If you forget the sambal, that’s fine, you can add it later. But it’s deffo better off in the paste to begin with.
Take a deep pan, pour in about 2 tbsp of your leftover peanut-frying oil and fry off the paste, making sure to keep the heat even. You’re looking for a good-smelling, softened paste which goes slightly dry. Once it’s done, add the spices and keep frying until they start to smell nutty and delicious.
Now it’s time to add a dash of water (to stop everything sticking) and add the peanuts! Try to fry these off for a minute or two, if you can. I never can, however, since the damn crumbs stick to the pan, and above all else DO NOT LET THE PEANUTS BURN. Once the peanuts are combined with the paste, add your tamarind and the coconut milk, and about a cup of water. You’re looking for a fairly liquid consistency which you then reduce down.
Finish him! [Mortal Kombat reference for you there]
This is now the essential moment for your sauce. This is how you finish it. Try the sauce now, and it will taste good, but sort of – eh. Quite earthily peanutty, and spicy, but lacking oomph.
Now is the moment. As it’s simmering, add the lemongrass, sliced ginger and lime leaves, then keep tasting and add salt, sugar and a couple of tsps of vinegar to taste. It’s a balance and it’s totally down to you how you like it. But remember, the more the sauce reduces, the stronger it tastes, so I’d season towards the end when it’s thickened to your liking.
It’s ready once it’s irresistible, and a red oil floats on the top – this is the peanut oil combining with the sambal oelek and is an essential component of any self-respecting peanut sauce.
Needless to say, like most curry-based sauces this is much better the next day. And if you’re so inclined, you can make the sauce up to the finishing point the day before you intend to serve it, and finish it the next day.
To serve, make some satay sticks (recipe coming soon!), or pieces of roast chicken with satay spicing, or serve with noodles and salad vegetables. Or with rice cakes. Or just plain – or turmeric – rice, boiled egg and cucumber (Which is truly the work lunch of dreams – just take the rice and satay, heat it up then served with a cold peeled boiled egg and chop up a chunk of cucumber on the side oh god I’m dribbling now just thinking of it). Or just scoop greedily out of the pan with a teaspoon while no one’s looking. I won’t tell. As long as you give me some too.
*Belachan is Malaysian dried shrimp paste, usually coming in blocks, with added chilli and is incredibly strong, pungent and gross-smelling. Sort of like a fishy asafoetida, it adds an indefinable “umaminess” to most Malaysian curries. It’s hard to find in the UK outside specialist stores but seasoned pioneers (stocked in sainsburys) does a decent thai-style shrimp paste. It’s not as offensive on the nose but provides the same essential taste.
**you’ll only know what this is if you’ve got block tamarind, which is really tasty. You can buy tamarind paste in supermarkets. But the flavour of block tamarind is definitely nicer. Just break off a chunk about 2 tbsp big, steep in boiling water until it softens, then strain through a sieve, pressing through the flesh and leaving the pips and skins behind. The resultant brown syrupy water is your tamarind juice.