Club for satay lovers

Skewers of satay on the charcoal grill
MY earliest memories of enjoying the smoky flavours of freshly grilled satay must be at the Satay Club, an open-air food court dedicated to these little skewers of meat. 

Opposite the railway station in Johor Baru, it was the central spot for satay lovers since the 1930s until it was demolished nearly 50 years later for development. The aroma alone was enough to draw the crowd.  Sticks of satay were grilled in full view of the customers and servings continuously replenished until vendors were told “cukup” (enough).

Sitting at stone table with matching stone stools

The Satay Club had beautiful stone tables with designs in mosaic tiles, with matching stone stools welded to the ground.

Sitting on the stools was quite tricky for me then — as a little girl, my short hands hardly reached the table and it was impossible to eat without dripping satay sauce all over — so I would stand close to the table to eat. But that still didn’t stop me from making a big mess!

Today satay makers use bamboo skewers. But back then at the Satay Club, satay sticks were made using the mid-rib or spine of the coconut leaf. I used to watch the vendors sharpening the spines to make the skewers.

Satay may have originated in Indonesia but it’s very popular in other South East Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.  In Malaysia, satay is found in every State and is available throughout the year in restaurants, food courts and travelling vendors.  It is a must for special celebrations and parties.  I should know because, if satay is served at a buffet, that’s what I’d usually start with.

To experience the full flavour of the fragrant satay, the skewers of meat should be first dipped in a peanut sauce and eaten with slices of raw onions and cucumbers as well as ketupat, a boiled rice cake.  My favourites are beef and chicken satay but I would leave mutton, venison, fish and exotic fare like deer and rabbit, especially intestines and gizzards to other connoisseurs!

While different regions have developed their own unique versions of satay, my friends and I agree that the one served in Kajang has gained a reputation as one of the nation’s best.

Each skewer usually has four chunks of meat – two pieces of meat with one piece of fat and then another piece of meat.  Imagine my surprise (and scepticism) when I was told that the original standard skewer had only three pieces of meat and that this was how satay got its name!  It seems sar teh (satay) in Hokkien dialect literally means “three pieces!”

The article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 27 October 2008

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