Have your way with satay

On its own, satay is a snack.

Change the sauce or combine with other ingredients, and it's another dish altogether. Here are a few versions of satay that you can get in Singapore.

Satay gado gado

WHERE: Rosraihanna Soto and Satay

B1-19 Golden Mile Food Centre 505 Beach Road

OPENING HOURS: Noon-10pm daily To begin with, they are already highly rated by Makansutra for their satay.

But plain satay can be limiting and boring even. (How many times and how often can you eat satay anyway?) So they also offer a rare manifestation of it. They take three pieces of their patiently grilled soft and smokey satay (chicken, beef or mutton), add gado gado, then slather the whole thing with their thick, nutty and spicy peanut sauce.

The greens retain crunch and go so well with the satay, ketupat pieces, tofu and egg.

Very hearty, and it's no wonder that this is one of their best-sellers at lunch.

Old-school satay

WHERE: Warong Sudi Mampir

01-19 Haig Road Food Centre, 14 Haig Road

OPENING HOURS: Fri, Mon, Tue 10.30am-7pm, Sat and Sun 10.30am-5pm, Wed and Thu closed

It is no secret that many satay hawkers get their supply from the same few suppliers.

Now you know why satay at some places taste suspiciously similar.

These folks here, three brothers, inherited their late father's Indonesian recipe and have kept to it faithfully for over two decades now.

They still hand skewer the satay each day. They used to skewer up to 600 sticks a day but, their fame caught up with them and now, they can't get away without making at least 1,000 sticks daily.

It is chunky, juicy and soft yet roasted.

And their peanut sauce has a rich balance of sweet and salty.

Satay beehoon

WHERE: Alhambra Padang Satay Stall 15C, Esplanade Mall

Makansutra Gluttons Bay, 8 Raffles Avenue

OPENING HOURS: 5pm-2am daily I believe this is the only halal version of satay beehoon.

Hawker Sam lightly blanches beehoon, tops it with seafood and "no cockles as our Malay customers don't like it".

But when available, his Chinese regulars can ask for it.

He pours the satay sauce over it and voila, a dish that makes sense for a satay and barbecue seafood hawker to offer.

Unlike the Chinese version that uses a smooth peanut sauce, this version has a nutty texture, something Sam says his customers prefer.

He tops it with prawns, taupok, kangkong, cuttlefish and chicken slices.

Nonya pork satay with pineapple sauce

WHERE: Candlenut Restaurant

01-03 Dorsett Residences, 331 New Bridge Road OPENING HOURS: 6pm-10pm daily

When chef Malcolm Tan reopened his Candlenut restaurant after almost two years, one of the dishes he yearned to offer was "old school Nonya pork satay".

It comes with a big, soft chunk of meat with some fat. The marinade is light.

The smooth peanut sauce is enlivened with fresh pineapple puree to cut through the heaviness.

His pineapple blend has a clean taste, not tampered with sugar or five-spice powder, which many hawkers add, and it lends a distinctly pronounced tang to the dip.

Where does satay come from?

A local food museum declared that the word satay has Indian origins, and that "sathai" has to do with skin or surface meat in that language.

This is befuddling. Indian hawkers are not associated with this snack. Yet, it may have an Indian-inspired name.

It's like Singapore Noodles. We can't find it here, yet the rest of the world named it after us.

There is another theory - that it is an ancient Sanskrit word. But I have not seen much evidence to support that.

The most plausible theory I have come across is from Haji Samuri, who owns one of the biggest satay chains in Malaysia.

While filming him for our Makansutra show, he revealed, in his shiny and swanky black Mercedes, that satay has Hokkien origins.

His Indonesian pals tell him that the word satay means "three pieces" in Hokkien.

Two pieces of meat and a piece of fat - skewer them, grill the whole thing and you get satay.

Plausible on many counts.

I took that story to my expert makan peer in Indonesia and his reply was: "Actually, I never thought of its origins but the word has no Bahasa Indonesia connections."

So, it seems likely that the old migrant Hokkiens and Hakkas who settled in Indonesia were the ones who came up with this "three pieces" snack, utilising the ingredients and rich spices available in that land.

Fast forward to today.

Satay has many versions, from Malaysian Kajang-style (very similar to the Malay version we get here, with spicy peanut sauce), and Sate Gai, the Thai version which some backpacker travel sites believe is the original version, and even the Nonya version, done with pork and a sour, fruity sauce (like pineapple or wild starfruit) in spicy peanut dip.

What today's cooks and hawkers do with the concept of satay is evolving, without veering too far from its original heritage.

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