Singapore: Grilling The Satay Man



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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 …


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and the spicy peanut dipping sauce comes with giant dollops of sweet, crushed pineapple.


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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.)


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After your satay order is done, Ah Bui Gia slices up the ketupat rice into cubes for easy skewering with your satay sticks…


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Next, he’ll ladle out some peanut sauce …


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… and add in several generous spoonfuls of crushed pineapple.


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The dish, in the end, was amazing to behold — and eat.


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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.

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16 thoughts on “Singapore: Grilling The Satay Man

  1. Lisa, we asked…he doesn’t have a successor. It’s pretty hard work for not a lot of pay. I’m hoping to get to know him a little better so he’ll share his satay and special peanut sauce recipe!

  2. This is so interesting, though I am sad to hear there is nobody to take over when he retires. It sounds like he deserves his retirement. I so wish you could bring him to NYC to cook for a week! :)
    ps – I am all set for this friday’s cold soup challenge with a new cold soup (not a disaster!) Let us know the hashtags! :)

  3. Hey Kelsey! If I could bring him to NYC, trust me, I would. Maybe if I told him he’d earn a lot more running a food truck in Midtown than pushing his cart around in Singapore!
    Looking forward to soups…the hashtag is #letslunch. Can’t wait to see yours!

  4. Up till about 6 years old, in the early 1970s, I used to spend my days with my grandparents in Tiong Bahru waiting for my parents to pick me up after work. I used to get satay from that old man Ah Bui Gia talks about, I think.

  5. Wow, Terence — that’s really neat! Ahh…memories of old Singapore. It’s sad that this’ll probably die out after Ah Bui Gia retires.
    A friend of mine was telling me about a mee rebus man he had in his neighborhood — same concept: he pushed a cart around, dishing out mee rebus. (A slightly sweet Malay noodle dish made with a thick, sweet potato-based gravy — for those who’ve never had it!) Wish that still existed.

  6. Hi Slim — he said he’s there every day. I’ve only been there on weekends though–I know he’s definitely there then. I’m Singaporean but I live in NYC and travel to Singapore quite a bit for cooking/food research. Glad you found the blog…keep on reading!

  7. Hi CK — definitely check him out! If you have a grill in London, satay is pretty easy to make at home (especially if you have a food processor to grind together the ingredients for the rempah — no pounding with a mortar and pestle for me!). I’m trying to perfect my satay recipe. I’ll post it on the blog when that’s done!
    Slim — I think you definitely have to be there before 5 pm. He does tend to sell out. Let me know how it goes!

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