Imagine the most flavorful bite of grilled chicken you’ve ever had: robustly seasoned, gorgeously charred, and crisp at the edges. That’s what you get with every bite of satay, one of the world’s proudest examples of meat on a stick and quintessential street-food fare all over Southeast Asia. The proteins and flavors vary from region to region, but the gist is more or less the same across the board: Small pieces of chicken, pork, beef, goat, or various types of seafood are coated in a flavorful liquid or paste; threaded onto skewers; and grilled hot and fast and very close to the coals so that almost every inch of their surfaces singes and picks up savory, smoky grill flavor. As soon as the food comes off the fire, it’s embellished with a condiment—often a potent dipping sauce—that ups its already strong appeal.
Two of the most familiar versions of chicken satay are native to Thailand and Malaysia, but they’re notably different. Whereas Thai satay tends to be relatively sweet and rich thanks to coconut milk and sugar both in the paste that coats the meat and in the peanut-based dipping sauce, the Malaysian version skews more herbal and savory. Its paste typically includes loads of fragrant lemongrass, ginger, galangal, garlic, and shallots; dried chiles; and spices such as turmeric, coriander, and cumin. And while the dipping sauce is also peanut‑based, it’s usually leaner and less sweet.
That vibrant, herb-forward profile is precisely what I find so appealing about the Malaysian kind (called satay ayam), especially the savory depth that develops when the aromatics char. But as with any grilled meat, it can be tricky to deeply brown the exterior before the interior dries out. I wanted to look carefully at that challenge and at the prep work: Pounding the large volume of aromatics and spices into a paste in a mortar and pestle requires multiple batches, and many recipes call for marinating the meat in the paste for hours. Maybe there were ways to shortcut those steps and make this dish.
Satay ayam can be made with either white or dark meat, but I pivoted directly to boneless, skinless thighs. Their abundant collagen and fat would keep the meat succulent over the fire while the surface browned and crisped.
I cut 2 pounds of thighs into chunks, coated them in a paste that I’d pounded together, and let the meat marinate for a few hours. Then I skewered the chicken and set it over a hot fire so that the meat would char quickly. And it did—but only in the few spots where it made direct contact with the grate. The chunks didn’t offer much surface area, and they spun around when I flipped the kebabs.
Going forward, I cut each thigh into wide strips that created loads of surface area for coating with the paste and charring. Then I threaded the strips onto double skewers so that the meat stretched over the grate and stayed secure. I also brushed both sides of the meat with oil to prevent the paste from sticking to the grate. Within 10 minutes, the chicken was nicely browned with deep char marks—but its surface was downright mushy.
After some thought, I recognized the culprit: An enzyme in the ginger called zingibain had broken down the meat’s surface proteins. My first instinct was to eliminate the marinating time, since we know that marinades don’t penetrate much beyond the surface of meat anyway. But the mushy texture persisted even when I coated the meat just before grilling, so I took a more radical approach and microwaved the paste for 1½ minutes before applying it. The heat deactivated the enzyme, meaning I could coat every inch of the chicken with the paste without compromising its texture. In fact, deactivating that enzyme allowed me to apply the paste ahead of time and store the chicken in the refrigerator until I was ready to grill.
A mortar and pestle is my go-to tool for pounding aromatics into a uniform paste, but given the large volume required for this recipe, it was easier to use the food processor. I minced the lemongrass and galangal and sliced the ginger into coins before grinding them in the food processor with shallots, garlic, and red pepper flakes (they mimicked the heat of whole dried chiles but didn’t require stemming and seeding). Adding a few tablespoons of water and a little oil to the mix helped the paste come together.
Next I studied up on the peanut sauce. In addition to being leaner and less sweet than Thai satay sauce, this style is coarser and more rustic; underscored by a fruity, sour tang from tamarind; packed with many of the same aromatics that are in the paste; and often briefly simmered to mellow any sharp flavors and reduce the mixture to a thick consistency.
That overlap between the paste and sauce ingredients seemed like an obvious place to further streamline my method, so going forward I simply made a bigger batch of the paste and set aside ⅓ cup of it for the sauce. The first step was to brown it in a little oil, and after a few tries I discovered that getting it good and dark—essentially creating a rich fond—gave the final sauce nice savory depth. Then I added an equal amount of peanuts (dry-roasted) that I’d coarsely ground in the food processor, along with water and a tablespoon each of tamarind paste and brown sugar, and gently simmered the mixture until it thickened. I seasoned it with salt and had a taste: Fragrant, nutty, and bright, it was the ideal complement to the smoky, savory chicken, and it was so well-balanced that I was tempted to eat it by the spoonful.
In fact, the whole package is so flavor-packed, flexible to prepare, and fast to cook that it’s turned into one of my default grilled chicken dishes. No doubt, it will become the same for you.