Our out-of-this-world chicken satay with peanut sauce may well be the happiest surprise of your summer. To create one of the supreme main course pleasures of Southeast Asian cuisine, be sure to include the delicious sweet, sour, and hot cucumber relish (thanks to Thai bird’s eye chilies.) Our chunky peanut sauce, too, packs a little heat, with the addition of serrano peppers.
Back in the mid-1980s, a pretty little paperback cookbook by Jennifer Brennan changed the way I cook. For me, Thai Cooking turned the exotic into the accessible. As well as opening the doors to Thai food, it gave me confidence to attempt the cookery of other, very different, far-off, places. It turned my kitchen into a sort of travel-machine that allowed me to explore the world’s flavors.
And it seems that — far beyond my London apartment — this wonderful book influenced many others in similar ways. At a time when the popularity of Thai food was just taking off in America, a lovely 1981 New York Times article by Mimi Sheraton heralded Brennan as “an outstanding champion of Thai cooking on the West Coast.” Outstanding indeed.
The truth behind astonishingly good chicken satay
Our classic satay recipe comes almost entirely from Thai Cooking. And there’s good reason for that. I’ve made this more times than I can remember, and it always — and I mean always — draws genuinely astonished praise from the kind, food-savvy friends I’m lucky enough to share it with.
You see, Jennifer Brennan’s satay leaves all others in the shade. The contrasting tastes, textures, and temperatures are so completely different, yet they work in perfect harmony with one another. Each element in this satay plays its own starring role. And here’s how they each perform.
Before being threaded onto skewers and seared over high heat, thin-ish slices of chicken breasts spend a little time in a subtly flavored marinade of fish sauce, tamarind, garlic, onion, and ginger. These might be strong flavors, but they’re used in modest quantities, and are nicely softened by the rich sweetness of palm sugar and a little water. The result is a gentle marinade that’s well suited to highlighting rather than overpowering the delicate flavors of good, free-range chicken breasts.
The thick, darkly rich peanut sauce is something special in its own right. It gets its fiery kick from some roughly chopped green serrano chilies, but its keynote, nutty, hot flavors are balanced by palm sugar and the creaminess of coconut milk. Fish sauce and soy add depths of salty savor, which are accentuated by citrusy lemongrass and the crisp tartness of fresh lime juice.
And as for the cool, cucumber relish, well, this is a bowlful of highly distinct contrasts. All at the same time, it’s sweet, sour, and hot — surprisingly hot, thanks to a goodly amount of flaked, dried Thai bird’s eye chilies.
Daring to develop a classic
Over the years, I’ve added one ingredient to the recipe and brought in substitutes for two others. Instead of using peanut butter in the sauce, I swop that for whole, dry-roasted peanuts. And I prefer a dark, mushroom-flavored soy in place of the sweeter, traditional, Indonesian soy sauce called kecap manis.
I like whole peanuts for the additional flavor and color provided by their skins, and the fact that I can control how chunkily I grind them for the sauce. The mushroom soy is there for its big umami taste and the extra depth of dark color that it gives the sauce.
And the one addition? I add grated ginger to the chicken’s marinade to give a little more spicy warmth to its flavors. Other than these small and hopefully forgivable amendments, I follow the long-trusted, pioneering guidance of Jennifer Brennan.
A trio of must-haves — palm sugar, lemongrass, and tamarind
It’s well worth taking the time to find these three essential ingredients because they produce some of the most distinctive — and complimentary — flavors in Thai cooking.
And then there’s fruitily tart tamarind paste. On its own, nothing else tastes like tamarind. Imagine intensely sharp, sour plums mixed with Worcestershire sauce, and you’ll have something similar — not the same, but similar. That’s partly because tamarind is a key ingredient in that particular sauce.
Bring all three of these must-haves together, and you’ll be well on your way to enjoying what I’d seriously describe as the ultimate, classic satay.
Chicken Satay With Peanut Sauce And Spicy Cucumber Relish
For the chicken
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts fresh, if possible. I slice each breast through its waistline to create two fillets about 1/3 inch thick. I then cut these into strips about ¾ inch wide. A good butcher will happily do this for you.
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 8 10-inch bamboo skewers
For the chicken’s marinade
- 4 cloves garlic peeled, finely chopped and crushed to a rough paste
- 1 yellow onion medium-sized, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh root ginger finely chopped, skin and all
- 1 teaspoon tamarind paste
- 1 tablespoon palm sugar I use the ‘rock’ type that comes in little round cakes about 2 ¼ inches in diameter. I reckon one of these is equivalent to a good tablespoon.
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce often labelled as Nam Pla
- 2 tablespoons water
For the peanut sauce
- 4 serrano peppers sliced into 1/8-inch rounds, seeds and all (fresh cayenne peppers work here as well)
- 6 ounces whole dry-roasted salted peanuts skin-on
- 1 yellow onion medium-sized, peeled and finely chopped.
- 1 1/4 cups coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon palm sugar
- 1 stalk lemongrass very finely chopped. I used a stalk about 6 inches long.
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce the mushroom flavored variety is my favorite
- 2 tablespoons lime juice approximately the juice of one fresh lime
For the cucumber relish
- 6 dried Thai bird’s eye chilies I used ones about an inch long and ground them roughly, seeds and all, in a pestle and mortar. 3 level teaspoons of dried flakes will be just as good.
- 2 English cucumbers each about 12 -14 inches long, peeled and sliced lengthwise into thin ribbons. I use a good potato peeler to slice off ribbons down the full length of each peeled cucumber. Easily done.
- 1 red onion medium-sized, peeled, halved and very finely sliced
- 4 tablespoons granulated white sugar
- 4 tablespoons white vinegar I used rice vinegar, but an everyday white wine vinegar is just dandy
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1/2 cup water
Marinading the chicken strips
- Break apart the palm sugar and dissolve it together with the tamarind paste in 2 tablespoons boiling water. Pour all this into a mixing bowl that’s easily big enough to hold all the chicken, and stir in the marinade’s remaining ingredients.
- Add the chicken strips and use your fingers to thoroughly coat them in the marinade. The chicken’s going to sit in the marinade while you make the cucumber relish, and then the peanut sauce.
Making the cucumber relish
- Begin by putting the cucumber, onion, and chili into a pretty serving bowl.
- Now use a small saucepan on low heat to thoroughly dissolve the sugar in the water — but don’t let it boil. As soon as the sugar’s dissolved, turn off the heat and stir in the salt and vinegar.
- Add this sugar-water mix into the bowl, give the relish a really thorough stir, and set it in the refrigerator to completely cool.
Making the peanut sauce.
- Tip the peanuts and lemongrass into your food processor. Give the mix a few pulsing blitzes until the peanuts turn nicely chunky. Take a little care here to avoid turning the peanuts into paste — you certainly want your sauce to have a definite crunchy-peanut texture rather than being smooth.
- Now add the peanut and lemongrass mix to a saucepan together with the rest of the ingredients for the sauce.
- Set the pan on a low medium heat, stir well, and allow it to come to a barely bubbling boil. As soon as that happens, drop the heat to low and let the sauce simmer very gently for 15 minutes. Give the sauce a few good stirs as it simmers away to prevent it catching on the bottom of the pan.
- Turn off the heat and cover the pan — sauce done.
Preparing the chicken satay skewers
- You’re aiming here to get even amounts of the chicken strips onto each of the 8 bamboo skewers. Carefully thread each of the strips onto a skewer so that you can concertina each strip into a roughly squarish, fairly compact block. You want each skewer to be about two-thirds filled with those block-ish strips, pressed pretty firmly one against the other.
Cooking the satay skewers*
- Set a big skillet over a high heat and add the coconut oil.
- The moment it starts smoking, add four of the chicken skewers, side-by-side, in a single layer across the skillet. You want to let them sear on that high heat for two minutes before turning them on to their opposite sides for another two minutes’ searing. What you’re aiming for here is to get a good, darkly golden char on two sides of each squarishly-sided skewer.
- Now turn each skewer onto a fresh side and let it cook for just 60 seconds — just 60 seconds — then do the same for the final side.
- Quickly remove them from the skillet, and set them aside on a warm plate. Now repeat the whole process for the next four skewers — you might need to add a little more coconut oil to the skillet to cook these.
Serving your classic chicken satay with peanut sauce
- As the last four skewers are sizzling away, gently heat the peanut sauce over a medium flame until it just starts to bubble. Turn off the heat, stir in the lime juice, and transfer the sauce to a serving bowl.
- Place two chicken skewers on each diner’s plate, and let them help themselves to the peanut sauce and cucumber relish.