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Alimentary, My Dear

Fast Food Under Way — Satays

By Tamia Nelson

October 18, 2005

When I was a kid, a camping trip wasn't complete if we didn't roast hot dogs over the fire. We cut switches of green willow, peeled them, and pointed the ends. Then we impaled our hot dogs on the sharpened skewers and toasted them in the flames. That was the idea, at any rate. Half the time, though, the hot dogs would fall from the skewer straight into the coals. It didn't matter. Retrieving the charred remains from the glowing embers was part of the fun, and all of us kids ate as many hot dogs as we could hold, each one nestled in a sponge-like bun and topped with chopped onions, sweet relish, mustard, and ketchup. Canned pork and beans rounded out our meal. It was enough to make a nutritionist shudder, but we kids didn't mind. Far from it. Food was usually scarce at home, and our fireside feasts were often the high point of the summer.

I wasn't thinking about it at the time, I admit, but when my brothers and sisters and I roasted hot dogs we were reenacting one of the great moments in the human story. Cooking meat on a stick has been part of mankind's bag of tricks ever since a clever ape learned how to coax flame from dry wood. So it's not really surprising that adult paddlers occasionally yearn for a campfire treat of their own, and weekend adventures, with their relaxed schedules and easy pace, are the perfect time to indulge this craving. Even so, it pays to keep things simple — and safe. Modern soft coolers and freezer blocks take care of most safety concerns. The rest is up to you.

OK. How about hot dogs? They are fast food, no doubt about it. For many of us they also awaken fond memories of our first camping trips. In fact, I still love hot dogs as much as I did then. But I don't always like what I read on the labels. As a hungry kid, I didn't care much about saturated fats and sodium. Now that I'm an adult, however, I do, and hot dogs often top the charts in both bad categories. There are better choices — satays, for one. These have everything going for them. They're delicious, they satisfy the inner carnivore, and they fly from cooler to plate in a flash. And just what are satays? Strips of thinly sliced marinated meat, threaded onto bamboo or metal skewers, and cooked over the flames. Satays are one of the original convenience foods. You can prepare them 24 hours in advance and keep them chilled until it's time to roast them. The actual cooking takes only a few minutes. Then they can be eaten right off the stick with a minimum of fuss and bother. They may be new to Americans, but satays are everyday fare throughout Southeast Asia, where street vendors cook them to order from meat they've marinated the night before. Satays are popular for a reason. They're simple and good. You could say that they're a recipe for fine dining under way.

Want to give satays a try? I though you might. Begin at the beginning, then, with the…

Meat of the Matter

Take your pick. Traditional satays are chicken, pork, or beef, but you can use whatever suits you. There's no reason why you couldn't make turkey, lamb, or venison satays, for instance. A little preparation is all that's needed. In your kitchen at home, trim off excess fat and gristle, then cut the meat into thin strips across the grain. One-eighth-inch-thick slices are ideal, but one-quarter inch will do. In either case, your strips shouldn't be longer than about six inches. If slicing meat isn't your thing — it takes a sharp knife and reasonably skilled hands — you can always let the butcher at the local HyperMart do the work for you. Just buy meat that's already sliced into strips.

A few tips: Tender cuts cook more quickly than tough cuts. Chicken is ready to eat faster than red meat, and beef sirloin is quicker than pork shoulder. But almost all satays will be done in less than ten minutes from the time you put them over the fire. Sliced chicken breasts are the speed kings — they're ready in just two to four minutes. And how much meat should you buy? Allow three to four ounces for each paddler to begin with, then adjust as needed. Experiment at home first, but don't forget what a day of paddling against a relentless headwind will do to appetites.

Got your meat? Then it's…


Marinades moisten, tenderize, and add flavor. Satays that haven't been marinated will be dry, tough, and more or less tasteless. You can make your own marinade from scratch, of course, but you'll save a lot of preparation time by purchasing one ready-made. Browse the HyperMart shelves to find something that appeals. Try the imported-foods section, as well as the displays of barbecue and grilling sauces. The spice aisle is another place to look. Are you a do-it-yourself type? Then shop for basic ingredients in specialty stores and food co-ops. (You'll find ready-made marinades and sauces here, too.) If you're a stickler for authenticity, you won't want to stray far from traditional Southeast Asian marinades. It's hard to improve on their complex melding of spicy, sweet, and sour flavors. On the other hand, fusion cooks will be happier when working with a broader palate. One marinade that I've tried and liked contains lemon juice, olive oil, chopped garlic, dried thyme, and ground black pepper. Delicious! A tomato-based barbecue sauce works well, too. And I've known folks who used bottled Caesar salad dressing with good success. You can also rub the meat with mixtures of dry spices — so-called "spice rub blends." These tenderize and add flavor, even if they're not marinades.


Thin skewers are a must. Bamboo is best, and bamboo skewers can now be found in many HyperMarts. The ten-inch length is just about ideal. No luck finding bamboo? No problem. Metal skewers can be pressed into action. They're generally thicker, though — better suited to kebabs than satays.

It's decision time. If you want really fast food, marinate your meat at home, thread it on the skewers, and pack the loaded skewers in a rigid plastic box with a tight lid. The box goes into a soft cooler with an ice block or two. All that's left to do now is to build your fire and roast the meat. Or maybe space is tight, but your schedule is loose. Then you can marinate the meat strips in a Ziploc® plastic bag (or one of the many equivalents), pack the skewers separately, and wait till you get to camp to thread the meat onto the slivers of bamboo. (WARNING! It's best to keep different meats separate. And the meat-in-marinade bags still go in the cooler.) Of course, you can always pack each component separately — meat, marinade, and skewers — and do all the prep work in camp. It's up to you. Just be sure that the meat stays cold till it goes on the fire.

To reduce the chance that your bamboo skewers will char, soak them in water for about an hour before loading them with meat, whether you do this at home or under way. (If you're in camp, be sure to use clean water.) The meat should marinate for at least one hour, too. A day in the refrigerator at home is even better. The actual cooking is simplicity itself. Poke the skewer through a strip of meat about half an inch from one end, then alternately pleat and pierce the rest of the strip on the skewer, accordion-style. Now add more strips till only a four-inch "handle" remains. (You can mix meats on the skewer if you want, though this will complicate cooking. The beef may still be raw when the chicken is done, for instance.) Finish up by burying the tip of the skewer in the meat. This helps keep the tip from scorching. If you've done it right, the resulting satay will look a lot like a piece of ribbon candy.


Here's the good news: Your fire doesn't have to be large, and you don't need a bed of coals. Remember how you cooked hot dogs as a kid? That's one way. Everybody roasts his own over the flames, just the way he likes it. If your party's large and your fire is small, however, you may want to place the skewers on a grill, rotating and basting as needed. (Use any leftover marinade for basting, or — after heating it to boiling in a pot — as a dipping sauce.) Satays don't take long to cook. Ten minutes is about the maximum. Most will be done much earlier. You'll know they're ready when the meat is browned all around, with only a few char marks. If in doubt, test a satay by slicing into it. Remember that meat continues to cook for a while even after it's removed from the heat, but be careful: poultry and pork must be cooked through. Beef or lamb can be done to taste, however.

Now you're ready to eat. The simplest approach, and in many ways the best, is to eat the meat right off the skewer, though you can always dip it first if you wish, either in a small pot of marinade (boil it beforehand!) or some other complementary sauce. Plum, duck, mustard, hoisin, sweet-and-sour, teriyaki, and barbecue sauces are among the many possibilities. Of course, satays don't have to be eaten straight from the stick. You can pack the cooked meat — along with a drizzle of boiled marinade or dipping sauce, perhaps — into pita bread pockets for a handy sandwich. Or you can slide it off the skewers onto a bed of instant couscous, another fast-food favorite that will fill any empty spaces in hungry paddlers' bellies. Or boil up a packet of packaged rice-and-sauce mix. Most will be ready in less than 15 minutes. The meat then goes on the rice.

Straight off the stick, dipped in sauce, or served up on a bed of couscous or rice — however you eat them, satays hit the spot and fuel your engine. And after the feast? What then? More good news There's no frying pan to wash. How's that for a win-win scenario?

Roasted meat has been a fireside treat for a very long time. It's creative anachronism at its tastiest. But save the hot dogs for family picnics in the backyard. On your next backcountry trip, try satays instead. Kipling was wrong. East may be East and West may be West, but the two worlds can meet in the kitchen. And when they do, the result is likely to be delicious!

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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