20 Years of SAVEUR: The World of Satay

In honor of the 20th anniversary of SAVEUR, we asked some of the people who taught us the most to each peruse a year’s worth of issues and to reflect on them. Here, Robert Nelson on a story from our May 2011 issue.

By Robert Nelson

Published on February 15, 2014

Flipping through the May 2011 issue of SAVEUR, I was arrested by the image of pieces of lightly charred skewered meats set against the vivid green of a banana leaf and a basting brush cut from a lemongrass stalk. It's the food that started my culinary journey seven years ago: satay.

For most of my life I'd been a lover of food but a neophyte in the kitchen. That changed when my wife Kim gave me a copy of SAVEUR editor-in-chief James Oseland's Cradle of Flavor (W.W. Norton & Company, 2006) for Christmas—an invitation to start cooking. I began with the satays, the only Indonesian dish I'd ever eaten. I not only made them, but, to our shared surprise, made them well. I went on to cook through the entire book, feeling all the while that I was participating in a sensual and cultural experience. We learned collectively as a household to appreciate the odor of toasted dried shrimp paste (now the best "worst" smell in our household, as it indicates Daddy is cooking Indonesian). And when I stoked the coals in my Weber, then laid skewers of marinated chicken on the grill, I could feel the connection to the vendor on the streets of Jakarta who did the same thing daily half a world away.

At first I didn't know how to move my new love of cooking beyond Southeast Asia. But a year later, in 2007, my wife gave me my first issue of Saveur, knowing I would be taken by a rag that featured an avocado as its cover girl.

Fast-forward to today. My current tally of recipes cooked from the magazine: more than 750. Often I'll read a feature, then cook every recipe from it over the course of a weekend. (My wife occasionally muses that, unlike say, golf, this is a hobby a spouse can really get behind.)

As such, cooking through the "World of Satay" article over the course of a recent week was completely routine for the Nelson household. Each evening, my wife and I, along with our three kids, sat around our kitchen table, feasting on Indian reshmi kebab of ground chicken and almonds, Lebanese kafta_of finely minced beef spiced with cinnamon and mint, or _satay udang, ginger-basted shrimp. One night I focused on Thai satays, including a mussel version I thought would trip me up but turned out to be a smashing success. The highlight, though, was the Indonesian satay ayam, lavishly spiced chicken skewers that we dipped into sambal kecap—a sweet soy dipping sauce—as well as peanut sauces. One bite took me back to my very first night of cooking and reminded me how big the world of food is—and how every issue of Saveur manages to bring that world right into my kitchen.

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