Just before summer officially arrived, I was searching through Martha Stewart’s website and came across a collection of easy summer side dishes that you could make using vegetables that were either currently in season, or were cool and refreshing to enjoy with the hot, summer weather. One of the dishes I saw that really caught my eye was a simple cucumber salad that looked quick, easy, only required a couple of ingredients and would be the perfect side to many summer favorites. This cucumber salad quickly reminded me of a Thai cucumber salad that I often found served at my house as a side dish whenever we bar-b-que’d in the backyard as the cool, refreshing, slightly sweet, yet tangy salad went perfectly with the char grilled flavor of bbq. It’s also a cucumber salad that you often find served in Thai restaurants alongside what may be the most well-known Thai appetizer – chicken satay. Oh how this reminds me of my childhood. My mom would often prepare chicken satay on the weekends so that we have a nice family bar-b-que, and when we went out to eat at Thai restaurants, we’d often order chicken satay. To this day, when we go out to Thai festivals for New Year’s or Thai New Year’s where there’s always a gathering of local Thai food vendors, I always tell my parents that all I want is Thai-style bar-b-que chicken or beef on a stick because it’s so reminiscent of Thai chicken satay. In fact, the first time I took my future husband to eat Thai food for the first time, I even ordered chicken satay for us so that he could see what I thought was a great representation of authentic Thai food.
Ok, after having all these thoughts of chicken satay floating through my head, I knew I needed to try to make some at home. I wanted to recreate the flavors of my childhood, the aroma of the food you’d find grilled up at roadside food stalls in Bangkok amid the hustle and bustle of the city, in my own home. There’s the easy way to do it, which is to take a package of satay sauce and use it as the base for the marinade for the chicken as well as the base for making the peanut dipping sauce. But that would be way too easy.
So, I decided to try to re-create it all on my own with ingredients and flavors that represent satay sauce to me. The ingredients I used to make the satay marinade for the chicken were peanut butter (gotta have that!), coconut milk, rice wine vinegar, garlic, ginger, brown sugar, sesame oil, salt and pepper, cumin, coriander and honey. Traditionally, in Thai chicken satay, there’s also the use of turmeric when you marinade the meat, making it turn the classic deep orange-yellow color that you traditionally see. If not turmeric, then sometimes curry powder, which contains turmeric is used as well. Since I had no turmeric on hand, and don’t really have occasion to use it, nor do I like curry powder, I just skipped it, which was just fine.
Start with the liquid base to the marinade in a deep bowl. In this case, its soy sauce. Low sodium soy sauce is fine as you’ll need to adjust the marinade later for your personal tastes.
To the soy sauce, add sesame oil. The sesame oil gives it a nice aroma and subtle flavor. But with sesame oil, less is more. It’s very strong and can be overpowering if you add too much.
Next, time for some coconut milk. Again, less is more. This is just to add some creaminess and thickness to the marinade. Additionally, coconut milk is used as part of the base of the peanut dipping sauce, so I’m using it here to mimic and mirror the flavors. Many of the ingredients used in the satay marinade will also be found in the peanut dipping sauce, which creates a consistency of flavors.
The last liquid ingredient would be rice wine vinegar. Rice wine vinegar is made from fermented rice or rice wine and is much sweeter and less acidic in flavor than standard white vinegar. However, you need to use rice wine vinegar and not seasoned rice wine vinegar as that contains salt and sugar in the seasoning. The rice wine vinegar will stand as the acidic component to the marinade and you will need a liberal amount of it, which will help balance out the saltiness of the soy sauce.
Rough chop green onions and cilantro. These both add nice mild flavors to the marinade along with a freshness and vibrancy. You can use the cilantro stem and all since this is only a marinade.
Mince a couple of cloves of garlic.
And mince up some fresh ginger which will give the marinade a little of a bite to it.
To the bowl add cumin and coriander. Cilantro and coriander are found in many Thai dishes, so be liberal with the seasoning. Go ahead and use the whisk to incorporate the dry seasoning into the liquids.
Now it’s time for a half cup of peanut butter. I like creamy peanut butter, but you can also use chunky if you prefer. Chunky peanut butter would add texture to the marinade. Remember, the dipping sauce for the meat skewers is peanut dipping sauce, which incorporates a lot of peanut butter. It may seem an unusual ingredient for a marinade, but it really adds creaminess and once incorporated into the marinade will help the marinade infuse and stick to the meat. Whisk everything together thoroughly. It’s ok if you start to see the peanut butter begin to breakdown. Just whisk until it’s all incorporated.
Now drizzle in a little bit of honey. Again, the honey adds a level of flavor and sweet to balance out the salty soy sauce and the kick of ginger that is to come.
And finally add the minced garlic, ginger, cilantro and green onions to the marinade. And again, whisk everything together to combine it thoroughly.
You will eventually end up with a thick brown and chunky marinade. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Remember, everything is there to help infuse flavor into the meat, in this case, chicken.
Time to prepare the chicken. You want to use white meat chicken breasts. Cut the chicken into long strips that are relatively thin, no more than 1/4″ to 1/2″ inch in thickness. Remember, you’re going to be skewering the meat and then grilling it. If it’s too thick, it will take forever to grill up. This is supposed to be quick and easy street food.
When the chicken is cut up, then just drop it into the marinade we made. Make sure that the marinade coats all surfaces of the chicken.
Ideally, you want to let the chicken marinade overnight so that it really can soak up all of the flavors of the peanut butter, and cilantro, and garlic, ginger, coriander, brown sugar, soy sauce, etc. But, at minimum, you want it to be able to marinade for a couple of hours. I prepared the chicken and the marinade the night before I grilled them up. Just transfer the chicken and marinade into an airtight bag and throw it into your refrigerator. If you’re so inclined to prepare this well in advance, you could also take your airtight bag and throw it in the freezer with a label of what it is and when it was made. In the refrigerator, or freezer, the chicken will start to soak up and absorb all of the yummy flavors of the marinade. Take the bag out of your refrigerator just before you’re ready to put the chicken on skewers and grill it. Or transfer it from your freezer to your refrigerator the night before to let it thaw.
After the chicken has had time to absorb all of the marinade, it’s time to start skewering the chicken and getting ready to grill it up! Since I was using wooden skewers, it was important to soak the wooden skewers in water before skewering the chicken and grilling it up so that the wood wouldn’t catch fire and burn up on the grill. It’s easy to skewer the chicken, just weave the strips of marinated chicken in and out on the wooden skewers until you fill up about 2/3 of the skewer with chicken. Weaving the chicken in and out on the skewer helps to secure the chicken on the skewer and will eventually allow the meat to grill up evenly.
Skewer up all of the chicken and stack it up on a plate so that they are ready to be grilled. You can grill this outdoors or indoors, just heat up the grill to a medium-high heat. You don’t want the grill too hot, or else the meat will burn before its cooked all the way through.
When your chicken is ready to go, and the grill is ready to go, it’s time to start grilling up these chicken satay skewers! Lay the skewers right onto the grill and listen to it sizzle and crackle as it grills. Because the chicken was cut pretty thin, and you’ve skewered it in a weave pattern on the wooden skewers, it should only take a few minutes on each side before it’s ready.
Carefully watch your skewers so that the chicken doesn’t become overcooked. When you’re ready to flip the skewer to the other side, you’ll get some nice grill marks (hopefully) on your chicken skewers.
As the chicken skewers are finished grilling, pile them on a plate and throw more skewers onto the grill. Chicken satay skewers are best served hot off the grill so that you get the intensity of all of the flavors of the peanut butter and the garlic and ginger and sesame oil and all the other yummy seasonings we added to the marinade coming together.
Traditionally, Thai chicken satay would be served alongside toast points and peanut dipping sauce. The toast points are simply sandwich bread toasted in the toaster and cut up in fourths on a bias to create pretty toast points. You use the toast to scoop up all of the remaining peanut dipping sauce that you don’t devour when you dip your chicken satay skewers into the peanut dipping sauce.
Often times, you’ll also find chicken satay accompanied by a sweet, tangy and spicy cucumber salad in Thai restaurants, as the cool cucumber salad is a nice tangy compliment to the slightly sweet chicken satay and peanut dipping sauce. Chicken satay, toast points, peanut dipping sauce and cucumber salad, this is the summer dish of my childhood and a Thai classic.