Making Satay in Santiago

Fazal Mahbob, 45, has lived in London for the last seven years, and is about to embark on a new Malaysian food venture in the city. He was formerly the business development and marketing manager at private dining club Mosimann’s. A keen globe-trotter and accomplished chef, his latest jaunt was to Santiago, Chile, where he cooked a Malaysian dinner for 10 guests. He takes Outstation through the experience.

Fazal Mahbob serving up satay with friend Natasha Low

Fazal Mahbob serving up satay with friend Natasha Low

Why Santiago?
I was invited by my friend Greg to spend Christmas at his home in Chile. And the prospect of sunnier climes, versus the London chill, was irresistible.

Why satay?
Greg came up with the idea of showcasing Malaysian street food to his friends. I had grand visions of a table laden with satay, laksa and nasi lemak, all of which would seem exotically unique to the dinner guests, who hailed from Chile, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland and the US.

Any snags?
My grand idea had to be scaled down somewhat. Chile relies heavily on its agricultural exports and is fiercely protective of its local produce. And so it discourages imported food products.

Luckily I had advice from an acquaintance, Natasha Low—one of the 20 or so Malaysians living in Chile—who told me what I could find in Patronato, Santiago’s ‘Chinatown’, comprising all of four Oriental grocery shops.

She also told me I was allowed to bring in some items, so I had Baba’s Meat Curry Powder and Lee Kum Kee Oyster Sauce with Dried Scallops stashed in my suitcase.

Did ‘Chinatown’ yield the goodies?
Thankfully, the popularity of Thai food in Santiago has flourished in recent years so there were packets of lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves available but in their most dehydrated forms. There was also a variety of Thai curry pastes, and lo and behold, belacan!

Working with dried lemongrass and galangal means that you have to soak them in water at room temperature for a prolonged period to restore their softness and delicate flavours. I had to make sure the diners wouldn’t encounter chunky pieces of the rhizome in the satay sauce.

Much later, Natasha told me there are several serai bushes in the Malaysian Ambassador’s residence. Too late!

What about the fresh ingredients?
Getting fresh ingredients was the easy part. A huge variety of vegetables Malaysians are familiar with can be cultivated on Chile’s fertile soil. Chileans have made Chinese style stir-fried vegetables one of their favourite dishes, and packets of ‘chap sui’ get snapped up quickly at La Vega Market. Whilst they don’t have cili padi, there is a pepper called rocoto, which looks like red capsicum but has a kick that could give any hot chili a run for its ringgit.

La Vega market, Santiago

La Vega market, Santiago

And the verdict?
Thankfully, the satay tasted as authentic as it could and was received well. In spite of my reservations about how the sambal belacan would go down, the guests kept dipping their begedil into it. For the main course, I grilled corvina (a firm white fish) and topped it with a tangy nyonya style assam sauce made with ginger, rocoto peppers, galangal, lemongrass and tamarind juice.

The taste of Malaysia was well received by the guests, with some suggesting that I should open a Malaysian bistro in Santiago. Perhaps, but only if I can have access to that fresh lemongrass!

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