I’ve been on a hunt.
The object of my obsession has been a man who is one of the last of his kind in Singapore – the traveling Satay Man, a person of a breed so rare that, sadly, he’s not likely to be replaced when he finally he hangs up his tongs.
For the last 32 years, this particular satay man has plied his trade almost every day in the Tiong Bahru neighborhood in central Singapore. He spends hours pushing his little wooden cart along the narrow sidewalks near Tiong Bahru market, pausing occasionally to bellow, “Sa-TAAYYYYYY! Sa-TAAYYYYYY!”
Those who live there know to run down quickly when they hear him — you never know how long he’ll stop for. And, at 40 cents (about 28 U.S. cents) for a stick of satay, he often sells out pretty quickly.
I’m happy to report that I finally did catch him. And the news, I fear, is not good.
At 43 years old, he’s looking to quit. There’s a home in China he’s dreaming of retiring to, you see. As soon as he can comfortably close shop for good, he’s gone.
For now, however, he’s got a job to do. And what a job it is — after having tasted his satay, I rank this guy up there with Santa Claus in the “bringing joy (and calories) to folks” category.
Seriously, people, we’ve got to find a way to clone him.
For a man with such a big voice, the Satay Man was a little shy when my dear friend Jeanette and I started grilling him about his life. Asking to simply be called “Ah Bui Gia,” which means “fat kid” in Hokkien, he shrugged off our great interest in his food and life.
Ah Bui Gia got started in the traveling satay business at age 11, when he started learning from an old man in his neighborhood who sold satay from a cart. His father was a sailor who died when he was 4 and his mother became a laundrywoman in order to put food on the table.
From his satay mentor, Ah Bui Gia learned to make Hainanese-style pork satay in which the sticks of meat are also threaded with big chunks of fat …
and the spicy peanut dipping sauce comes with giant dollops of sweet, crushed pineapple.
When the original Satay Man died, Ah Bui Gia inherited his cart and the traveling satay continued.
His offerings are basic but so, so good.
Along with his satay, Ah Bui Gia serves up ketupat, rice densely packed into pockets of woven fragant pandan leaves. (Tropical pandan leaves, used in many Southeast Asian desserts, smell like vanilla but are a little more complex.)
After your satay order is done, Ah Bui Gia slices up the ketupat rice into cubes for easy skewering with your satay sticks…
Next, he’ll ladle out some peanut sauce …
… and add in several generous spoonfuls of crushed pineapple.
The dish, in the end, was amazing to behold — and eat.
The pork satay was perfectly grilled and filled with crispy fat, making it much tastier than lean versions you tend to find in restaurants. The ketupat was plump with the pandan scent and the pineapple offered a lovely juicy and sweet foil to the spicy, oily peanut sauce.
“I’ve never seen such big pieces of fat!” exclaimed our friend Kevin, who possesses a bigger and more discerning stomach than almost anyone I know. “This is better than sex — seriously.”
And I’ll heartily second that opinion.
Where to find Ah Bui Gia: He’s generally in the vicinity of the Tiong Bahru market (near blocks 17 and 19, Tiong Bahru Road) in the early afternoon.