Two entirely different cultures yet they share a similar comfort food in sticks of succulent barbequed meats to be savoured over a cool long drink–the satay and Japanese yakitori.
Malaysia’s favourite comfort food- ‘Satay’ or BBQ meat (chicken, beef, goat or mutton, pork and animal entrails) on bamboo skewers eaten with a spicy sweet crushed peanut chili gravy. Satay is believed to have its origins in Java and Sumatra Islands in Indonesia. Some say its birthplace could possibly be traced back to China, India or the Middle East. But since then it has made its way to the dining tables of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand.
The Satay meat is usually marinated with sugar, sweet soy sauce and spices such as coriander seeds and cumin. Some cooks add a touch of tamarind juice to balance the sweetness, but turmeric is almost always the main ingredient to give Satay its distinctive sweet spicy aroma and saffron like colour to the roasted meats. The peanut gravy consists of ground roasted peanuts, coconut milk, soy sauce, tamarind, galangal, chili peppers, sugar, garlic, scented with different herbs and spices (such as coriander seed, cumin and lemongrass).
Over the years, the original recipes of chicken, beef, mutton and chicken entrails have evolved to include an array of ingredients such as rabbit meat, fish, prawn and other seafood. But what has remained unchanged is Satay’s signature smoky char-grilled taste and caramelised aroma, and of course the accompanying delicious crushed peanut-chili gravy. A typical companion of Satay is also the ketupat, or packs of slow steamed rice dumplings wrapped in woven palm leaves.
Satay is sold at many street corners or coffee shops but also found in the menu of high end restaurants offering local cuisines. Many Malaysians and also travellers are most probably familiar with the highly popular Kajang Satay, which got its namesake from Kajang town in Malaysia’s Selangor state. But food adventurers and Satay enthusiasts wanting to deviate from the ‘beaten track’ could also explore different versions of this delicious dish. One example is Stall No. 16, Medan Satay which serves exceptionally juicy and reasonably priced Satay (RM0.90 per stick) in the Medan Selera local food court in Section 14, Petaling Jaya City.
‘Yakitori’ is one of the most popular comfort food for most Japanese after ramen and o-sushi. The Yakitori style of cooking was discovered more than 200 years ago in Japan. Back then, there were poor farmers who could only afford to eat leftover odd chicken parts. They found that grilling tough pieces of skewered chicken parts over a low flame and long cooking time had made it tender. Yaki literally means to grill or barbeque, and tori means bird. Today, the term Yakitori is also used in reference to grilling other types of skewered meats such as pork, beef and mutton, and even seafood and vegetables.
Yakitori is usually grilled over charcoal fire in Habachi stoves. Typical of the clean and clear taste of Japanese cuisine, Yakitori style cooking rarely requires marinating the ingredients before grilling. However, a dash of salt, pepper or a splash of tareh Yakitori sauce on the sticks of meats before grilling magically elevates its taste and aroma to a different level. Tareh is made of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar.
More ‘adventurous’ versions of the typical Yakitori skewers of meats and vegetables include the gyutan (ox tongue), shiro (chicken small intestines), reba (chicken liver), nongkatsu (chicken cartilage) and bonjiri (chicken butt). Some deviations from the classical Yakitori menu include shiitake mushrooms, ginko nuts, and different combinations of rolled bacon and cuts of meat or fish roe, shrimps, and different types of vegetables. Most importantly, they actually pair very well with cold beer, Japanese sake or shochu.
Yakitori is basically a go-to comfort food which is available in many Japanese street corners, most izakayas (Japanese pubs or bistro) and even in high-end Japanese restaurants. Yakitori is most popular among families, foreign visitors and especially ‘salarymen’ (Japanese office workers) who enjoy eating these tasty sticks of meat with glasses of cold frosty beer and other alcoholic beverages. In Kuala Lumpur, a popular Yakitori place and watering hole is SUMIKA (in Japanese literally meaning ‘charcoal house’), tucked in a commercial area in SS15 Subang Jaya. It offers a variety of tasty and medium to high price Yakitori delights ranging from RM6-15 per stick.
Text and photos by Tan Jo Hann