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Thai Peanut Dipping Sauce

July 16, 2013

We’ve now made Thai chicken satay.  And while you can eat the chicken satay on its own, if you really want to be traditional, the chicken satay should be accompanied by a peanut dipping sauce.  You’d never see satay served in a Thai restaurant without being accompanied by peanut sauce.  That would be blasphemous because the peanut sauce is as integral to satay as the wooden skewers are.  The great thing about this dipping sauce is that it doesn’t just go with chicken satay, it can go with beef satay, the original pork satay, and even tofu satay.  I’ve also seen peanut sauce served alongside Vietnamese spring rolls.  And finally, Thai salads use peanut sauce as dressing.  So peanut sauce has a far greater role than just dipping sauce for satay skewers.

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Back when I was a kid, my mom would take the shortcut of using store-bought satay sauce mix, which contains turmeric (part of what gives satay its classic color), as well as curry powder to give it that hint of spiciness and curry flavor, and combine that with peanut butter, and hot water and/or coconut milk and combine it all in a pot on the stove until we had peanut sauce.

But, since I had made the satay marinade for the chicken skewers from scratch, I wanted to create my peanut sauce from scratch too, without using the help of a packaged mix.  I don’t have turmeric at home so my peanut sauce lacked the traditional orange color that turmeric lends to the sauce.  And I don’t have curry powder at home because I don’t like curry at all, which means that my peanut sauce lacked a bit of the punch of flavor and spiciness, but since I don’t like spicy food anyway, I was fine with that.

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In a pan set on medium-low heat on the stove, I added a couple of heaping tablespoons of creamy peanut butter.  Of course, you could use chunky peanut butter too, which would add texture to your dipping sauce.  Allow the heat of the pan to start to soften up the peanut butter and melt it until it turns into a liquid texture.

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To the liquid peanut butter, add in rice wine vinegar.  The rice wine vinegar adds a sweetness to the peanut sauce.  Yes, the vinegar is acidic, but it doesn’t have the punch of white vinegar.  You want to make sure that you’re using rice wine vinegar and not plain white vinegar.  The liquid from the rice wine vinegar also serves to add moisture to the creamy peanut butter therefore diluting it even more.

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Add just a touch of sesame oil.  Sesame oil is quite powerful and a little bit goes an awfully long way.  If you add too much sesame oil, it’ll hit your taste buds as soon as you taste the peanut sauce.  Just a dash is more than enough.

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Time to add a little tang and more acid to the peanut sauce by squeezing the juice of one lime directly into the skillet.  The lime will give the peanut sauce a background note of acid and punch.  Remember, the flavors of Thai cooking are sweet, sour, salt and bitterness.  The lime certainly lends to the sourness.

To add some sweet to the peanut sauce, we’ll add a tablespoon or two of brown sugar.  You could use granulated white sugar, but the addition of molasses in brown sugar helps to sweeten the peanut sauce, and the molasses also makes the brown sugar melt nicely into the sauce.

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Finally, add coconut milk to the peanut sauce.    Adding coconut milk, provides for a creaminess to the dipping sauce.  It creates a thick, rich peanut sauce.  The flavor of the coconut milk blends nicely with the creamy peanut butter.  It’s just a layer of richness to the sauce.  However, fear not if you don’t have coconut milk, adding hot water to the peanut sauce will also do the same trick of liquefying the peanut sauce and adding volume to it.  The water will dilute the peanut sauce and allow it to hold a thick liquid form rather than turning back into peanut butter.  Heavy cream would work too, but be careful about scalding the cream and creating a burnt milk flavor to the rich peanut sauce.

You also need to be careful about the heat on the stove while you’re making the peanut sauce.  As  you can see from my above picture, when the heat becomes too high and there’s not enough liquid in the peanut sauce, the peanut butter starts to seize up and begins to clump up and form thick peanut butter again rather than being a liquid-type dipping sauce.  The heat from the stove evaporates whatever moisture you have, so be careful not to turn up the heat too much.  If the peanut sauce does start to seize up and thicken, you can use any combination of coconut milk or water, added in slowly, while stirring, to loosen up the peanut sauce.  Just don’t add too much liquid and end up with a runny peanut sauce.

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What you should end up with is a peanut sauce that is still thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, and has a texture that is thicker than heavy creamy.  But this is still a sauce, so you should be able to pour it.  Taste the peanut sauce and make sure that you still get the full flavor of peanut butter, but pick up the subtle flavor of the lime juice, and the creaminess of the coconut milk, and just a hint of the sesame oil, and some sweetness from the brown sugar.

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When you’re ready, pour the peanut sauce, while it’s still warm preferably, into a dipping bowl and serve it alongside your grilled chicken satay skewers.  Take your yummy chicken skewers and dip it right into your peanut sauce and enjoy.  It’s a burst of bright and rich flavors in your mouth.

Serve the peanut sauce with toast points so that the sauce doesn’t go to waste when the chicken skewers are all gone!  Pair it with a cool cucumber salad, and you’ve got yourself a great appetizer or entrée.  This is the perfect summer meal on a hot day that calls for yummy grilled food!

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