peanut sauce, an improvisation

This recipe is the result of an emergency: none of my tradition-based Indonesian cookbooks mentions a straightforward peanut sauce like they are served all over the place. Quite some of the satay recipes I’ve seen use candle nuts (kemirie), which are oily, hazelnut-shaped yellow-white nuts not unlike macadamia nuts. They are usually first roasted and then ground into a paste. According to all the information I could get they are not good for consumption in their raw state. They taste inspiringly exotic, but not like peanuts. And that’s what we want here: peanuts.

In fact lots of them, which means that the lean, sweet and lemony variants as served in modern town restaurants don’t appeal to me. Let’s try something of our own.

I chop one red onion, 1-2 cloves of garlic, 1-2 red chilies up in the blender with a little water to get a smooth pulp (the traditional method is pounding everything in a stone mortar).

I heat up a spoonful of neutral oil in a pot and add the pulp to reduce and fry a little. While cooking, I add 2 tablespoons of ground coriander, one tablespoon of ground cumin and around 1/2 tablespoon of ground turmeric (alternative: 1 cm or so stamped fresh turmeric root, which tastes better. It keeps well in the freezer…) to the mixture.

Then comes a small chunk of a product called terasi (trassie): an Indonesian dried, fermented shrimp paste sold in tiny bricks, which is added to the majority of Indonesian dishes. It has a characteristic smell reminiscent of a tire burnout contest at a sandy beach which, however, transforms into something very nice when added to food – one of the small wonders of kitchenland. If you can’t get trassie, don’t worry: I once heard a lengthy conversation of Indonesian customers in the small Amsterdam shop where I used to go. One of them couldn’t stand the taste of shrimp paste. It is okay.

When the mixture starts to hiss, I add 2 cups of water and a few spoonful of smooth unsweetened peanut butter. This takes some time to dissolve, after which everything needs to come back to a slight simmer. Depending on circumstances, the sauce will now either thicken at a startling pace, making it necessary to add more water and to stir vigorously in order to avoid a black nightmare, or it will stay watery, crying out for more peanut butter. Every kind of peanut butter does this in a different way. So I stir, stare and correct until the sauce is, and stays, smoothly ketchupy half-thick. Add sweet soy sauce to taste and more salt if needed.

For more or alternative spices, I find lime leaves better suited for this particular sauce than lemon grass; one can cook 2 leaves along with the rest, and also add some grated ginger. One could reduce the amount of coriander-cumin, leave out the turmeric and add some galanga root instead, together with more chilies.

This sauce can be used for charcoal-grilled satay of various kinds, or poured on top of a mix of steamed bean sprouts and other veggies (this dish is decorated with crumbled shrimp crackers and slices of hard-boiled egg and called Gado-Gado).

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