August 9 was Singapore’s independence day, a day that usually passes like any other save for the three hours in the evening when everyone would tune into the live broadcast of the National Day Parade. An annual ritual, this prestigious event represents the culmination of a year of planning, rehearsals and an impressive feat of logistical coordination. It is, after all, Singapore’s moment to showcase what we’ve been up to in the past year, and no mis-steps are allowed. I remember the one parade I attended as a kid – it involved a lot of waiting, packed crowds, and endless hours of entertaining myself with the free goodie bag before the real highlight of the evening: Fireworks. There are few experiences in life that can beat those minutes of immense awe and jaw-dropping admiration at the bursts of neon streaks against the night sky.
So with the fireworks taking place 15 hours ahead of any decent hour from where we live, it was the perfect excuse to commemorate this event with some kitsch red and white decorations and engaging in our national pastime – Eating!
I whipped up a batch of Satay (barbecued meat with peanut sauce) and Otah (spiced fish paste wrapped in banana leaves) – two of my street favorites that any Singaporean takes for granted at home, simply because of its availability on every street corner. Along with the stuffed tofu pieces with a sweet and spicy peanut sauce that our good friend, P conjured up, we were well-prepared for a National Day celebration in our backyard, California-style. Who needs fireworks, eh?
Satay is a quintessential street dish in Singapore and Malaysia and just about the only dish in the region where you eat your spoon! Like peas and carrots, satay is always served with a mildly spicy peanut sauce and you eat it by dipping each skewer of meat into the sauce, then race against time to capture everything in your mouth before an uncooperative glob of sauce drops on the table. Traditionally a Malay dish, you have a choice between chicken, beef or mutton all marinated in a heady blend of spices and onions before being skewered on sticks and grilled to crisp perfection. I’ve found that leaving the meat to marinate overnight helps to tenderize and lock in the flavors, and that gathering a few friends around to help thread the meat makes for a fun pre-barbecue activity.
Beef satay – Barbecued Beef with Peanut Sauce
Adapted from The Best of Singapore Cooking by Leong Yee Soo; makes about 30 to 50 sticks
1.5 lb slab tri-tip roast, trimmed of fat and sliced into 1-inch pieces no more than half-inch thick
30-50 bamboo skewers
5 shallots, cubed
3 cloves garlic, left whole
3/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
6 stalks lemongrass, white part only, sliced
3 half-inch slices of galangal
1.5 teaspoon dark soya sauce
1.5 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
3 tablespoons cumin seeds
Combine the ingredients for the marinade base in a food processor and process until you get a smooth paste. Dry roast the spices and grind to a fine powder, then add them to the marinade base.
Mix the condiments in a small bowl and add to the marinade base.
Rub the marinade into the meat and leave it, covered, in the refrigerator, for at least 2 hours to overnight.
Just before you’re ready to grill, soak the skewers in water for at least 10 minutes before threading the meat, which should be placed along the upper-third section of the skewer.
1.5 lbs shelled peanuts, roasted and ground
6 cups water
1.5 cups vegetable oil
7 shallots, cubed
12 cloves garlic, whole
3 stalks lemongrass, white parts only, sliced
50 dried chillies, soaked overnight and deseeded
6 half-inch slices of galangal
1/2 tablespoon salt
12 tablespoons white sugar
6 tablespoons tamarind water*
Boil the ground peanuts in water over low heat until it turns into a thick paste. Stir constantly for at least 20 minutes to prevent the mixture from burning. Set aside.
Combine the ingredients for the sauce base in a food processor and process into a smooth paste. Heat the oil in a wok or a saucepan and fry the finished paste for about 15 minutes or until all the oil is fully absorbed, then add it to the peanut mixture.
In a small bowl, mix the condiments together and add it to the pot. Boil over low heat for at least 5 minutes, stirring constantly until the sugar is absorbed.
When the satay is ready, ladle the warm sauce into bowls and serve with chunks of cucumber and raw red onions.
*To prepare tamarind water, mix 2 ounces of tamarind paste with about a quarter cup of water. Leave to rest for about 5 minutes. Pass the liquid through a fine-mesh sieve before mixing with other ingredients.