Sizzling Skewers: Satay versus Shish Kebab

Fire, fire, meats we desire. For centuries, people have been grilling skewered meats over open fire, giving rise to countless variations such as Southeast Asian satay, Indian tikka, Japanese yakitori, Chinese kaorou chuan, Russian shashlik, Portuguese espetadas – the list goes on. Although the ingredients and the way they are prepared may vary, there’s no denying the universal appeal of these smoking hot skewers.

Meat skewer - satay


Widely lauded as an affordable tasty treat, satay comprises marinated meat chunks threaded on pre-soaked bamboo skewers, slow-grilled over a charcoal grill. It’s a prevalent street food across Southeast Asia, going by the names of sate in Indonesia and Malaysia, sateh in Thailand, and satti in the Philippines. While these regional variations differ in terms of the types of meat and cuts used, one common denominator is how the meats are always thoroughly marinated in local spices – typically shallots, lemongrass, cumin and turmeric, which gives satay its distinctive yellow tint.

Locally, common varieties include satay ayam (chicken), satay lembu (beef), satay kambing (mutton) and even pork satay. Satay can be found at most hawker centres across Singapore, though it is best enjoyed at the eponymous Satay Club (sadly now defunct), and at the night-only satay street at Lau Pa Sat, where the aroma of charcoal smoke and caramelised meats waft tantalisingly.

Given its sweet smokiness, satay is usually served alongside ketupat (packed rice cakes), sliced onions, cucumber cubes, and the all-important peanut dipping sauce. Wash it all down with a draft or three of ice-cold Tiger beer. Don’t worry, we won’t tattle.

Meat skewers - shish kebab

Shish Kebab

Shish kebabs can be said to be the forefather of our modern-day satay. The name “kebab” likely comes from “kbabā,” the ancient Aramaic word for char or burn. Originating from Middle Eastern cuisine, shish kebabs are said to be invented by Turkish soldiers who used to grill cuts of wild game skewered on swords over open field fires during their invasion of Anatolia.

Lamb is traditionally used in shish kebabs, due to its fattier flesh that readily picks up the smoky flavour of the grill. These days, however, shish kebabs also come with other proteins – chicken, beef, and fish. Some shish kebabs contain only meats, while others incorporate vegetables such as bell peppers and onions on the same skewer. No matter the combination of ingredients, one element remains constant: the need for marination. Typical seasonings include yoghurt, olive oil, lemon, paprika, cumin, cinnamon and other spices.

Unlike satay, it’s not recommended to bite and yank the meats directly off the skewer. Instead, proper dining etiquette entails using a fork to guide the ingredients onto a plate, then eat them using a fork and knife.