A “Satay”-ste of the Town
As an avid food enthusiast, I’m not just interested in nomming out on a tasty meal. I mean, of course I absolutely love to devour a wide range of flavors and am open to trying any dish once, but it’s not just about the eating experience for me. Coupled with any delicious bite is a story behind it, and oftentimes learning the history of a dish can be just as filling as the meal itself.
That’s why I was eager to get my utensils on the flavors of satay this week, as the Southeast Asian dish not only contains an electrifying mix of exotic ingredients, but it has been prepared in countless ways across the globe.
In its purest form — complete with grilled skewers of meat accompanied by a spicy dipping sauce — satay likely originated in Java, Indonesia around the 19th century as popular street-vendor fare. Over the years, it has spread to every country in the region, from Thailand to Malaysia, with each one adopting its own take on the dish. Sometimes the recipes even differ from town to town.
Luckily for me, Hawaii’s unique melting pot of cultures has set the stage for our own versatile mix of satay-inspired menu items. At the following Ono, You Know restaurants, satay touches have seeped into both traditional and innovative creations.
Fairwood Drive-Inn & Pho 27
At Fairwood Drive-Inn & Pho 27 in Kaimuki, a mix plate of local cooking styles is the name of the game, and owner Tiffany Ko presents the ever diverse Satay Vegetable with Beef or Chicken ($8.75).
As Ko describes, one of the most important features of satay is a rich, flavorsome sauce. “With satay, you have to cook with a really sticky kind of base,” she explains.
To create her spicy, full-bodied sauce, Ko nurtures lemongrass, chili, chili oil, garlic and more for two hours, watching the sauce darken as it cooks. When it has reached the perfect shade of savory brown, she knows it’s ready.
“Inside, (the sauce) has chili and lemon-grass, so when you cook it for a long time, the smell comes out,” Ko says. “The flavors come out and then the color changes.”
To complete the dish, Ko leaves traditional meat skewers behind and instead opts to cook up Chinese-style chicken or beef with a choice of steamed white rice or chow mein noodles as well as vegetables such as celery, carrot and zucchini.
In true Hawaii form, local patrons have embraced Ko’s multi-cultural approach to the dish. “The first day I put it on the menu, they bought it. The second day, they kept coming, coming, coming. I (said), ‘Oh good, that means they like the sauce,'” says Ko.
Additionally, since this satay dish is made from scratch with natural ingredients, it is MSG-free and won’t leave you thirsty, even though it comes with an excellent dose of spice.
Fairwood Drive-Inn & Pho 27
Kaimuki Shopping Center
3221 Waialae Ave.
Pimtong Thai Cafe
For an authentic bite of satay, it has to be Pimtong Thai Café in Kalihi. The three-month old establishment serves up gorgeous specialties from the mid to Northeast regions of Thailand, and among them is a traditional rendition of Chicken Satay ($8.95).
Owner Nannaphat Banks presents grilled chicken skewers with a mild, yet mouthwatering peanut sauce. To prepare this appetizer, the meat is marinated over night in coconut milk, a touch of curry paste and cumin. According to Banks, the cumin is essential to traditional preparations, as it lends a distinct character and golden hue to the chicken.
Once the tender skewers are grilled, they are ready to be dunked into Banks’ creamy and thick Thai satay sauce prepared with peanuts, salt, onion, a little sugar, chili paste with soya bean oil and a touch of curry.
Banks says that just as the elders she grew up cooking with in Thailand showed her tricks to make the peanut sauce extra luscious, she doesn’t mind sharing the details with customers. “Some people don’t put the chili paste that we use,” she explains, “and a little bit of red curry, that’s the secret.”
Banks also notes that patrons may request a Vietnamese-style sauce on the side, which is a common accompaniment to satay. The refreshing mix of vinegar, purple onion and cucumber balances out the deliciously rich peanut sauce.
Pimtong Thai Cafe
1311 N. King St.
For one more adventure with satay flavors, I turned to Sheraton Waikiki’s Rum-Fire, where the eatery’s unique brand of “social comfort food” has excited diners since it opened in 2007.
There, executive sous chef Danny Chew suggested I try the Flash Stir Fried Edamame ($8) appetizer, a light and refreshing use of satay flavors.
“The dish is really healthy with all the nutrients of soy beans and has an incredible Asian flavor from the sauce. It’s lightly tossed in,” says Chew.
RumFire’s snazzy Thai chili garlic satay sauce is dressed up with hoisin sauce, lemon juice, rice vinegar, honey, oyster sauce, Sherry, veal stock, shallots and garlic. “I think it’s unique we use veal stock to flavor the sauce; it’s our ‘secret ingredient,'” adds the chef.
Each element of the sauce contributes to its sparkling personality and complex flavors, which perfectly complement the freshness of the edamame. Once all the components are wok-fried together, the resulting appetizer is a dynamite way to start any meal.
I encourage you to head out in search of the same satay-inspired dishes I found, as they left me utterly satay-sfied.
2255 Kalakaua Ave.