We can’t mention meat-on-a-stick without bringing up the shish kebab, derived from Turkish — ‘sis’ meaning ‘sword, and ‘kebab’, meaning meat. The dish eventually found its way around the world during the reign of the Ottoman Empire (1301-1922) throughout the Middle East, Europe and eventually to Southeast Asia and Japan, where it respectively took on the forms of satay and yakitori. One of which has been embedded in the Singaporean gastronomic DNA even before such a notion even existed. The other, while a relatively recent addition to our dining habits, has since been integrated into local diets—even more so than its predecessor.
I remember my first bite of yakitori. It was at one of the first few casual kiosks, the kind you find at the basements of shopping malls. True to that vaunted Japanese efficiency, they had an automated process going on: a metal contraption lowered a congo line of skewers into vats of sauce before moving them through a corridor of heating coils that grilled the meat. It was love at first sight. The dripping fat, the nose-twitching aroma of charred meat, and a machine that looked like something out of science fiction left a deep impression on my young mind—this was what I wanted to do when I grew up (I wasn’t the most ambitious 10 year old). Forward to today and sans a skewer-flipping career, the wondrous possibilities of yakitori have since been opened to me. Chefs dedicate their entire lives to the art of yakitori, where there are eight different ways to skewer a particular cut of meat–and what cuts there are: juicy thigh meat, tender breast and all manners of offal and esoteric pieces of cartilage. From cramped izakayas in Tokyo where the smell of meat and cigarette smoke clings to your soul, to the more upscale places where your skewers are fussily grilled over elegant stacks of smouldering binchō-tan, the result is nearly always similar, even if they happen to be of differing qualities: tender pieces of chicken on a bamboo skewer, crispy charred edges and coated in a sticky, savoury-sweet sauce.
Satay is often associated with hawker food, with dining out in one of Singapore’s crowded, sweltering hawker centres. There’s invariably the image of a skinny guy in a stained wifebeater singlet, furiously waving a straw fan while flipping about a dozen skewers with one hand. The smoke is stinging your eyes, but you wait patiently in the queue, hoping that the person in front isn’t going to order enough to feed his whole village. It’s a dish found all throughout Southeast Asia, also known as sate in Indonesia, and sateh in Thailand, with different variations of meats and cuts unique to each region, although always thoroughly marinated in a variety of spices–like tumeric, lemongrass, and cumin–and seasonings like soy and fish sauce that make the meat keep better in the Southeast Asian humidity. Varieties found locally include mutton, chicken, beef, and sometimes pork, if you’re buying the Chinese version, which includes tangy grated pineapple in the requisite peanut sauce. It’s a dish many Singaporeans hold dear, and can run the gamut from the much-loved 40 cent skewers hawked surreptitiously (to skirt food licensing laws), to $5-and-above skewers that will either save our culinary heritage or destroy fond memories of a once affordable, meaty treat.