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Chicken Satay Recipe

Why It Works

  • Cutting the chicken into small 3/4-inch pieces provides more surface area for the marinade to penetrate the meat and shortens its cook time. 
  • Soaking the skewers prevents them from burning during grilling.
  • Packing the chicken tightly together on the skewer allows the exterior to char and develop a smoky flavor while keeping the interior moist.

When I was a kid, satay—smoky, juicy, savory grilled meat on bamboo skewers—was a regular feature at my family’s barbecues. My mum always made two kinds: sate ayam (chicken satay) and sate babi (pork satay). She served the skewers with peanut sauce, sambal kecap (sweet soy sauce with chopped bird’s eye chiles and shallots), compressed rice cakes called lontong, and raw shallots and cucumbers. After devouring the grilled meat, I’d use the skewer to pierce bits of lontong and shallots, popping the pieces into my mouth after a quick dip in peanut sauce.

Satay is one of Indonesia’s most beloved dishes, and perhaps one of the most recognizable, too. Though the dish is enjoyed in other parts of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, many scholars believe it originated on Madura, an Indonesian island off the Java coast sometime during the 15th century. Writing about Indonesian food and identity in the Routledge Handbook of Food and Asia, Dr. Christina Nope-Williams notes that satay can be traced back to kebabs introduced by Arab Muslim merchants, which then spread to other parts of the region. 

Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Today, you’ll find numerous varieties of satay made with chicken, beef, lamb, pork, rabbit, and even goat testicles, among many other meats and proteins. Though my favorite is satay babi, chicken is arguably the most popular in Indonesia and around the world. 

In the West, satay is offered at many Southeast Asian restaurants, and many might think of it as a restaurant dish. But if you have a set of skewers and a grill, satay is actually quite easy to make at home—and with a few techniques I’ve picked up from my family, you may even be able to make satay that’s as good as my mother’s.

Marinate Your Satay

Though my mother always makes her marinade shortly before grilling, I prefer preparing it well in advance so I can marinate the chicken, giving it more time to fully season the meat. As fellow Serious Eats contributor Tim Chin found, marinating your chicken for at least an hour helps to enhance browning and results in juicier, more tender meat that’s also more flavorful. I recommend marinating for at least an hour, but eight hours is best if you can spare the time.

Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Traditionally, satay is marinated once skewered: You thread the meat onto the sticks, then flip-flop the raw skewered meat in the marinade, a technique used by abang abang sate—satay street vendors who plied the Jakarta streets of my mum’s youth. Though it’s a method my mother swears by, I prefer to marinate the chopped chicken in a bowl before skewering. Not only do I find this to be a more effective way of evenly coating the chicken, but it also means I don’t have to make room in my fridge for 30 sticks of satay.

Use Dark Meat

For satay that stays juicy even after grilling, it’s best to use dark meat. Unlike white meat, which dries out quickly, dark meat has connective tissue and additional fat that makes it a more forgiving cut, allowing you to give the meat a nice char for extra flavor without sacrificing texture. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are my preferred cut for satay—they’re just as easy to work with as chicken breasts, but are far more tender and flavorful.

Skewer Your Satay Correctly

Before bamboo skewers were common, sticks were often fashioned from the spines of coconut leaves called lidi. Though most parts of Indonesia use bamboo skewers today, cooks in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta often use metal skewers made from bicycle spokes to thread pieces of goat or mutton for sate klatak. (Bamboo skewers can easily be found in most grocery stores, but it’s worth investing in a set of reusable metal skewers if you plan on making satay regularly.) 

Beyond the material of your skewers, how you cut the meat matters, too. Some people like to slice the meat lengthwise into longer strips, while others, like my family, prefer cubed chunks of meat. Using strips of meat can speed up the cooking time, but also increases the risk of it overcooking. Cutting your chicken into chunks means you can pack it onto the skewer tightly and, as Kenji noted in his Thai-inspired satay recipe, “reduces the ratio of surface area to volume,” allowing you to adequately brown the meat while also keeping the interior of the chicken moist. 

Serious Eats / Melati Citrawireja

Once the chicken is marinated, I thread the meat onto the skewers carefully. It’s a task I’ve been perfecting since I was 12, when my mum put me in charge of assembling all the satay for our barbecues. After all the hours spent skewering meat, I can practically do it with my eyes closed. I always weave each chicken piece onto the stick longways, trying to catch as much meat as possible. This discourages floppy pieces of meat and ensures that as much surface is exposed as possible. Push the pieces close together, covering the bamboo tip, so that the skewer doesn’t burn.

How to Set Up Your Grill for Satay

For that crisp, caramelized exterior, satay is typically grilled directly over an open fire (no grill grates!), often with coconut husks as an alternative fuel source. Though you could use a traditional grill setup, it really isn’t ideal. As former Serious Eats editor Sasha Marx wrote in his guide to setting up a grill for skewers, satay benefits from being closer to coals for higher heat so you get a good char without overcooking the interior of the thin pieces of meat. “Cooked on a more standard charcoal grill, with greater distance between coals and food, the skewers’ exteriors end up dried-out and leathery rather than charred and juicy,” he notes. “And the spread-out coals, coupled with a longer cooking time, can easily burn the exposed surfaces of wooden skewers.”

The easiest solution is to use a coal-fired hibachi or konro grill. Another method, if you’re using a kettle grill, is to modify your existing grill set up with some foil and a few bricks.

  1. Wrap four bricks in aluminum foil.
  2. Place several pieces of scrunched up foil at the bottom of your grill. Build two parallel walls with the bricks, set three-quarters of a skewer’s length apart. 
  3. Pour lit coals into the tunnel between the bricks to create an area over which to cook your skewers.

And if all you have is a gas-fired grill, your satay will still be tasty—you just won’t get the same gosong (charred) flavor. (You can always run a blow torch over your finished skewers to give it that smoky flavor—just be mindful of safety when doing so.)

How to Serve Satay

Even though peanut sauce is the most popular dipping sauce for satay in the West, there are many other condiments and dishes to serve with it. If you have goat satay (sate kambing), the peanut sauce on the side may be flavored with petis (black shrimp paste) which adds a salty-sweet hint of umami. Sate klatak, skewers of goat meat, are usually accompanied by gulai, a rich soup spiced with aromatics like lemongrass, cloves, cumin, and coriander. Sate Padang, beef satay from its namesake city in Sumatra, comes with a thick yellow sauce flavored with turmeric, coriander, galangal, and cumin, among other spices. And sate taichan, chicken breast marinated with garlic and fresh lime juice, is enjoyed with a simple sambal and more lime juice. Though these are all delicious options, peanut sauce—or sambal kacang—is among the easiest and most accessible for most home cooks in the West.

Serious Eats / Melat Citrawireja

Still, you can take the time and effort to make a superb peanut sauce that outshines the ready-made stuff in stores. There was a time in my life when I’d make the effort to fry red-skinned peanuts in a wok and grind them to make sambal kacang, which is what my mother did when I was growing up. Nowadays, she unashamedly starts with store-bought chunky peanut butter.

I settled on middle ground for this recipe, and use store-bought unsalted, roasted peanuts that I grind to a paste with a food processor. To streamline things, you can make the peanut sauce in advance. I personally recommend always keeping a jar on hand—for all the times a satay craving hits; and once you realize how easy and versatile peanut sauce is (it’s great for other preparations too!), I suspect you’ll want to make it all the time.

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