Singapore Cooks

Satay that's deep-fried in a wok

Ms Tan uses curry powder, lemongrass, blue ginger and cumin powder in the seasoning for her satay.
Ms Tan uses curry powder, lemongrass, blue ginger and cumin powder in the seasoning for her satay.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Ms Jasmine Tan says her deep-fried chicken satay is flavourful enough without peanut sauce

Property agent Jasmine Tan got into cooking in a dramatic fashion.

The 50-year-old used to own Scotts 37, a 80-seat cafe which served Indonesian and local food in the lobby of the now-defunct Hotel Asia in Scotts Road, in the early noughties.

Then 36, she had quit her well-paying job as head of customer service in the air freight industry to run the cafe.

She was in for a rude shock on her first day.

Two of the cafe's three chefs threatened to quit if they were not given a pay rise immediately.

She says: "I do not like being intimidated, so I told the chefs that they should leave if they were not happy."



    1kg boneless chicken leg, skinned

    180g sugar

    1 Tbs salt

    25g coriander powder

    25g cumin powder

    5g five-spice powder

    30g turmeric powder

    25g curry powder

    25g chilli powder

    White pepper to taste

    30g shallots, chopped into 2cm thick slices

    25g old ginger, chopped into 2cm thick slices

    25g garlic, chopped into 1cm thick slices

    50g lemongrass, chopped into 1cm thick slices

    100g blue ginger, chopped into 2cm thick slices

    25g fresh turmeric root, chopped into 1cm thick slices

    200ml vegetable oil


    1. Cut the chicken into 2cm by 2cm pieces.

    2. In a mixing bowl, mix chicken with sugar and salt thoroughly for five minutes, until the grains dissolve completely. Add coriander powder, cumin powder, five-spice powder, turmeric powder, curry powder, chilli powder and white pepper. Mix thoroughly.

    3. Grind shallots, old ginger, garlic, lemongrass, blue ginger and turmeric in an electric blender. Add this mixture (above) to the chicken and ensure that the spices evenly coat the chicken.

    4. Let marinate in the refrigerator for an hour.

    5. Make the satay by skewering four pieces of chicken onto each stick. Shape and mould the chicken slices till they become compact. Repeat until all the chicken is used up.

    6. Pour the vegetable oil into a wok set over high heat. When bubbles appear, reduce heat to low and fry the satay 10 sticks at a time. Ensure that only the meat portion is fully immersed in the oil with the sticks resting on the side of the wok (above).

    7. Fry for two to three minutes, and turn the satay carefully to the other side and fry for another two minutes. Turn the satay back to the original side and fry for another minute until it becomes golden brown.

    8. Remove satay from wok and serve immediately.

    Makes 55 sticks of satay

The chefs walked out that night. Determined to turn things around, she sought the help of the hotel's general manager, who referred her to a former chef of the hotel. She was in her 70s and fondly known as Aunty Amy.

Sympathetic to Ms Tan's plight, the kind-hearted retiree taught her more than 10 recipes for local dishes, including sayur lodeh, mee siam, laksa and kueh pie tee.

Ms Tan recalls that it was challenging to catch up with the seasoned chef's swift cooking pace and she had to stop her midway to record measurements of the ingredients on paper. She still keeps these treasured recipes in a plastic folder.

Within a month, she mastered the recipes and added them to the menu at Scotts 37.

She says: "I am grateful to Aunty Amy as she taught me everything that she knew about cooking and did not hold back parts of her recipes."

Three months later, she hired two chefs, but made it a point to learn their recipes and cook regularly.

"I did not want to be in that helpless position and be dependent on chefs," she says.

One of the recipes her new chefs contributed was deep-fried chicken satay.

Instead of grilling the skewers over a charcoal fire, they are fried in a wok filled with oil.

To make the satay more fragrant, she has tweaked the recipe, adding curry powder, five-spice powder and more lemongrass into the seasoning, which contains 12 other ingredients such as blue ginger and cumin powder.

"The meat is so flavourful that it is good to eat on its own, without having to dip it into peanut sauce."

Ms Tan, who is the youngest of 11 children, makes about 200 satay skewers for special occasions such as Chinese New Year and birthday celebrations for her two sons, aged 21 and 15.

Typically, she makes about 100 sticks a month, freezes and cooks them within two weeks.

"Most people are surprised when I told them the satay has been fried instead of grilled. It also saves the hassle of having a barbecue whenever I crave satay."

Growing up, she did not have the opportunity to cook, as her mother, now 90, a former street hawker, took control of the kitchen, cooking dishes such as ngoh hiang (five-spice rolls) and steamed wontons.

Her first brush with cooking was when she helped out at her brother's now-defunct Western food stall in Tampines on weekends in the mid-1990s.

She also set up a 40-seat cafe called Good Old Days in Upper Changi Road, which served Singaporean and Indonesian food. It closed down in February this year, four months after its opening, due to the manpower crunch.

She rules out returning to the food and beverage industry.

These days, she cooks dishes she learnt from her former chefs to remember her days as a restaurateur.

"I miss the satisfaction of serving my food to customers, but nowadays, I am happy to share the joy of cooking with my family," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore Cooks Satay that's deep-fried in a wok'. Print Edition | Subscribe