Satay, a popular dish across Southeast Asia, is most often associated with the culinary traditions of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

At its core, satay consists of small pieces of marinated meat, traditionally chicken, beef, or mutton, threaded onto thin bamboo or metal skewers. The marinade typically incorporates an array of spices and herbs, such as turmeric, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, and chili. The skewers are then grilled over an open flame and served as a main course alongside rice or longtong. Indonesian satay is usually accompanied by a signature peanut sauce and is often considered to be the most traditional version.

The Origin of Satay

Although the origins of satay are a subject of debate among historians, the general consensus attributes the dish to the island of Java in Indonesia where it was developed and sold as a street food.

Due to its similar cooking techniques and spice profile, the dish itself is thought to be an evolution of the Indian dish called “seekh kebab”, which in turn was a variation of the Turkish “shish kebab”, a term used to describe small pieces of roasted meat on the end of a skewer.

Indonesia was once a major trading center for local spices and Indian textiles.

During the 19th century, traders from the Middle East began to arrive in Indonesia to trade merchandise. This is the point at which satay is said to have become popular in Indonesia, and the corresponding cultural exchange is believed to have played a significant role in shaping satay into the distinct dish it is today.

The Evolution of Satay

Regardless of its origin, the recipe for satay quickly spread throughout Southeast Asia, being adapted and transformed to suit the tastes of each region.

For example, Malaysian satay usually features chicken or beef and is accompanied by a rich peanut sauce, diced red onion, cucumber, and small cubes of compressed rice called ketupat.

Reflecting the country’s widely multicultural society, Singaporean satay often features a fusion of diverse cultural traditions, resulting in a wide array of satay presentations and styles.

In Thailand, the sauce is sometimes a bit different, as the peanut sauce often incorporates regional Thai ingredients and flavors. Thai satay is often served with cucumber salad, raw onions, and toasted bread or sticky rice.

Regional Variations

Indonesian Satay

Some of the most popular Indonesian satay varieties include:

Sate Ayam: Chicken satay, marinated in a blend of spices and served with peanut sauce.

Sate Kambing: Goat satay, marinated with a mix of sweet soy sauce, garlic, and coriander, and served with a tangy soy sauce dip.

Sate Lilit: A Balinese specialty, made from minced seafood or chicken, mixed with grated coconut, coconut milk, and spices, then wrapped around lemongrass or bamboo skewers and grilled.

indonesian goat satay

Indonesian Goat Satay | Image Credit: Saesherra, PixaBay

Malaysian Satay

Some of the most popular Malaysian satay varieties include:

Sate Ayam: Similar to its Indonesian counterpart, this chicken satay is marinated in a blend of spices and served with peanut sauce.

Sate Daging: Beef satay, marinated in a mixture of spices and served with a rich peanut sauce.

Singaporean Satay

Some of the most popular Singaporean satay varieties include:

Hainanese Pork Satay: A distinctive Singaporean satay variation, Hainanese pork satay features a sweet and tangy marinade made from a blend of soy sauce, sugar, and spices. The skewers are served with a rich, thick peanut sauce.

Satay stalls along Boon Tat Street next to Telok Ayer Market, Singapore

Satay Stalls Along Boon Tat Street Next to Telok Ayer Market, Singapore | Image Credit: Allie_Caulfield, Wikipedia

Thai Satay

Some of the most popular Thai satay varieties include:

Moo Satay: One of the most popular Thai satay variations, Moo Satay features marinated pork pieces, usually tenderloin or shoulder, grilled on skewers and served with a rich peanut sauce and a side of cucumber relish (ajat). The marinade typically includes ingredients such as coconut milk, curry powder, fish sauce, and palm sugar.

Pla Satay: A unique Thai variation, Pla Satay consists of marinated fish pieces, usually a firm white fish like snapper or grouper, grilled on skewers and served with a tangy peanut sauce and cucumber relish. The marinade often includes a blend of spices, such as lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves, along with coconut milk and fish sauce.

thai chicken satay

Thai Chicken Satay | Image Credit: Huahom, PixaBay