A street food dish that can be found in many variations all across Southeast Asia, satay is a staple of Singaporean communal dining. It is also a great way for foodies to dive into the culture of the region.

Resembling a kebab, these grilled meat skewers trace their origins to Arabian culture, but have since evolved into a unique dish. Bamboo skewers are used instead of metal ones, and satay is commonly served with a variety of dipping sauces.

Chicken, beef and mutton are the most common meats employed in this dish. Among non-Muslims, pork is also used. After being skewered and seasoned in a concoction of spices like tamarind and galangal, the meat is grilled over a charcoal fire.

The cook keeps a close eye on the skewers, fanning them while continuously brushing the meat with oil for a perfect glaze. The end product—well-browned, lightly charred meat that’s a perfect blend of savoury, smoky and sweet.

While the essence of the dish remains constant across countries in the region, Singapore’s variant on the dish incorporates a variety of dipping sauces, reflecting our multicultural origins.

Once off the grill, the skewers are served with a sweet and spicy peanut sauce, traditionally made with roasted peanuts, coconut milk and a variety of spices. Depending on the stall you order from, you may be served with a variant topped with either pineapple puree (commonly found in Chinese Hainan versions of the dish) or kecap manis (sweet soy sauce).

A complete satay dish will include a side dish of steamed ketupat (compressed rice) in small cubes. These are sometimes wrapped in woven coconut leaf packets.

Lastly, cucumber and onion slices are added to cleanse the palate.

A history of Singaporean satay

Historically, satay was sold by members of the Chinese, Malay, and Indian-Muslim community on push-carts and at makeshift roadside stalls. Up until the late 1970s, the quintessential vendor—known colloquially as a ‘Satay Man’—was a familiar sight around the island, with his “uniform” of a white singlet, straw fan and portable charcoal grill.

Today, this savoury delight is sold at most hawker centres and food courts all across the island, and has become an integral part of our vibrant food culture. Popular hawker centres and eateries that serve up this treat include Telok Ayer Market (colloquially known as Lau Pa Sat) and Old Airport Road Food Centre.

While some establishments will let you order a few sticks, a common amount comprises a dozen skewers. Tuck in and enjoy this dish the way the locals do—as a dish to be shared with new friends and loved ones alike.