Saturday, September 1, 2012

Authenticity and Approximation


People all have their personal favourites when it comes to flavour profiles. For some, it's the sour tang of a dill pickle, or the salty richness of cheese curds, or the clean sweetness of a really good vanilla ice cream.

For Kari, one of them is the always popular Thai-style Satay chicken with peanut sauce. Satay basically means meat on a skewer, rather than the peanut sauce itself (which is something wikipedia JUST taught me). But due to the popularity of the sauce that goes with the meat-on-a-stick, it's generally just called Satay.

Anyhoo, it was my night to cook and Kari wanted the Satay Chicken w. Peanut Sauce goodness. Easy enough, right? Well, as it turns out, there is almost never an exact universal version of some recipes or standards in the food biz. Maybe basic poutine (fries, curds, gravy), but not much else. And God help you if you try to find THE authentic recipe for something, because every household, from Vietnam to Vermont, has "THEIR" version of the local standard and while they all have similarities, none are usually the same. So, finding the "authentic" version of anything can be a snipe hunt.

And this is why I personally scoff at the notion of "authentic" cuisine. Frak authentic, give me TASTY!!! Perfect example: I was talking to a buddy about BBQ in Ottawa and how it compares to his buddy's in Georgia. And, as it turns out, the "authentic" Georgian way is little seasoning on the meat, all flavour comes from an array of BBQ sauces (which is completely different from the other BBQ styles that I tend to emulate, but you get my point). If I personally think I can make something better than the "authentic" version, I'm gonna give tradition the two-fingered salute and forge ahead. In the case of BBQ, make both rub and sauce as flavourful and complimentary as possible and you can't go wrong.

Another example: a colleague of Mexican descent once lamented to me about the use of tomatoes in guacamole being "blasphemous", which I think is ridiculous. Tomatoes are delicious and compliment avocado perfectly!

So, all this to say, when I started looking at different recipes for the "traditional" peanut sauce, I figured the only way to go was make it my own and *approximate* the flavour profile as best I could. This, to me, is pretty much the essence of good cooking and the greatest challenge. It isn't a recipe that's going to make something taste the way it "should", it's your palette as a cook. If it's supposed to taste bland or safe or who-knows-what, then change it!

So, that's what I did. Most recipes I saw called for the use of peanut butter, chillies and a variety of spices. I had a vision of coconut milk, peanut butter, curry paste, Sriracha and lime juice. Luckily, someone else in Internet land was able to confirm that I was able to confirm that I was on the right track:

Now, since it's me, I did not adhere to the above recipe exactly. I never do, it's just not my style (with some exceptions, like Doomsday Bars). Also, instead of making it a dipping sauce, I thought it might be fun to make it a marinade for the chicken. So I did! Here's how:

"Satay" Chicken

Serves 2-4, depending on appetite

- 1 lb. (1/2 kg) skinless, boneless chicken. I go with chicken thighs usually, mainly because they have more flavour and are much cheaper than breast.


- 1 400 ml (14 oz.) can coconut milk (just under 2 cups)
- 2 tbsp chunky peanut butter
- 1 tbsp red curry paste (I used store-bought stuff, but it's always better to make your own if you can)
- 1 tsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp Sriracha sauce
- juice of 1/2 lime
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tsp minced ginger or galangal

Piecing together the marinade
- Whisk all ingredients together. Place chicken in a zipper bag with marinade and toss to ensure marinade covers all the chicken. Let sit in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

Marinate, my pretties, marinate!

- Preheat the grill to medium-high heat.
- Grill chicken for about 6-8 minutes per side, turning once, until cooked through. Cooking time depends on the thickness of the meat. If you're cooking a large breast, it'll take longer.

Now, all good protein needs a side. In this case I whipped up an Asian-style slaw using cabbage and mango:

Asian Mango Slaw

Serves 4, at least


- 4 tbsp sesame oil
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 tsp rice wine vinegar
- juice of 1/2 lime (and some zest if you like)
- 3-4 drops of fish sauce
- 1/2 tsp Sriracha sauce
- pinch smoked paprika

- Whisk ingredients together in non-reactive bowl and let sit in fridge while you make the Slaw.


- 1/2 white or Napa cabbage, shredded
- 1/2 red cabbage, shredded
- 1 large carrot, grated
- 1 mango, diced
- 2 green onions, trimmed and finely sliced
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro

- Mix ingredients in a large bowl. Stir in Dressing and serve.

Tasty vegetative goodness!

And there's one man's approximation of a Thai feast!


And you'll notice nowhere is there a dipping sauce! Crazy!


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