Most societies have at least one popular dish made up of small chunks of food arranged and cooked (usually by means of grilling over hot coals) on a skewer.
Our version, the sosatie, is, for example, known as Yakitori in Japan, Suya in Nigeria, Anticuchos in Peru, Shao Kao in China, Satay in Indonesia, Souvlaki in Greece, Shish in Turkey, and kebab (also kabab or kebap) in the Middle-East (and just about everywhere else these days it seems). In Malawi I have encountered Mbewa, roasted mice on a stick.
In her PhD-thesis of “Die Geskiedenis van Boerekos 1652-1806” H.W. Claassens argues that the origins of the South African version of the kebab to be Persian, and that the practice of marinating the meat in a curry sauce must have come from the early cooks at the Cape Colony. It is likely that these original recipes arrived via Indonesia where skewered meat is known as “Sate” (or Satay). She lists Hildagonda Duckitt’s cookbook “Hilda’s ‘Where is it?’ of recipes” published in 1891, as the first written account of kebabs and sosaties. In it she had a heading: “Sasaties or Kababs”. At least one source, Heard and Faull, 1970, Cookery in Southern Africa. Traditional and Today, suggests that difference between sosaties and kebabs in our part of the world, is that sosaties are marinated in curry and spices, whilst kebabs do not contain any curry.
For most part today, food-on-a-stick, is associated with street food. A quick snack that does not take long to cook and is easy to carry and eat: on a bus, in a taxi even on a scooter or bicycle. On the way to work or meetings, as a quick snack or light lunch or even as a full meal with some side dishes. It is easy to cook and easy to take-away. No wonder it is so popular the world over.
It has been a while since I have had a really good sosatie. The last batch I bought from a street vendor was foul. Plain and simple.
So I started thinking. What is wrong with this sosatie? What is wrong with sosaties I had of late? Are there ways to make these better?
Here is what I came with to make better sosaties.
- Use only good quality meat. In computer science they call it GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. The better the quality of meat, the less you have to do about it. At all costs avoid tough cuts, you’re not making curried chewing gum.
- Good knife work. Make sure your chunks of meat are cut to the same size. That ensures they cook evenly. If the chunks are too small, they’ll dry out too quickly. Too big, and they’ll won’t cook quickly enough or stay in the marinade much longer. Uneven in size will mean that some chunks will be over-cooked or under-done.
- Brine first, then marinade. Marinades are used to tenderise tough meats and to add flavour. It is common for sosatie meat to be marinaded in sauces containing vinegar. Too much vinegar not only “cooks” the meat, but leaves a distinct (and sometimes unpleasant) sour taste on the surface of the meat. In my view, brining works better. Leave the meat for 24 hours in a weak (5%) brine would achieve better results. Hereafter, marinating the meat for a short time (a few hours only) in a yogurt-and-spice based marinade would give you all the flavour you need. Or, if you have access to one, use a vacuum machine. Simply add the marinade and the meat to a bag and vacuum. A few hours under vacuum would be enough.
- Don’t freeze your sosaties. Freezing alters the structure of the meat (freezing causes cells to burst) and aids drying out the meat. Avoid freeze-burn on the meat, make your sosaties fresh when you need them.
- Get rid of the extras. In my view the addition of fruit, vegetables and fat, does not add value to your sosatie. In fact, it might make it worse. It has become common practice to add pieces of fat, dried fruit (such as apricots) and vegetables (such as onions and bell peppers) in between chunks of meat. Here’s my problem: what is good for meat, is not necessary good for fruit or vegetables. In the time it takes to cook the meat, the vegetables might still be raw. I do not like raw onions and I do not like raw or under-cooked fat either. The time it takes to cook the meat properly is not sufficient to render and cook the fat. Nor does chunks of fat in-between chunks of meat keep the meat moist (for that to happen you have to put the fat inside the meat). Hence, in my view, the addition of chunks of fat serve no purpose other than to bulk up the sosatie and since fat is cheaper than meat, the addition of fat makes the sosatie more profitable, not more flavourful.
- Don’t over-cook the meat. More than anything, it is heat that dries out meat. Don’t over-cook. A few minutes over very high heat is enough. A more modern way would be to cook the meat sous vide to the right degree of doneness, and then finishing it by grilling for a few minutes only over very hot coals.
- Add more flavour by means of dipping sauces. The better way to add flavour by giving the eater a choice of what and how much additional flavour they want to add. The Satay did not become a global favourite for nothing. Break the (traditional) rules, food-on-a-stick does not belong to any one culture in particular, it belongs to us all. Thus, beg, borrow or steal ideas for your sauces.
This week’s recipe is my take on a better sosatie incorporating these suggestions. Granted it has a lot of “down-time” whilst the brine and marinade do their work. But it is worth it.
I served mine with fresh mint and coconut chutney. But for you, the world is an oyster.