Thai food — for the peanut wary

August 24, 2006

Cashew chicken satay

Cashew chicken satay

Yes, I love Thai food. At least, I think I love Thai food. I haven’t actually been able to eat much of it — although everything I’ve consumed has agreed with me, to say the least. Why can’t I eat it every day and twice on Sundays? The husband is deadly allergic to peanuts… and you know, those Thai cooks love their peanuts. (Not so allergic that he can’t be on a plane with that bag o’ nuts, but still.) So, being a dutiful and loving wife, I don’t drag him to eating establishments where his death could be imminent.

But… being the dutiful husband he is, he has actually gone and made Thai food for me. Better still, it… was… awesome.

This is the kind of the culinary endeavor that leaves me speechless. He doesn’t eat Thai food. He’s never made Chicken Satay before. And yet it was a complete success. Such grand culinary experiments by me inevitably end up in the garbage, not down the gullet. So, I bow to you, husband… who once (I have to say immodestly) learned to cook from me. You have done well, little grasshopper.

Read on for his recipe, and for more close-ups of deliciousness.


As my wife has said, I can’t eat peanuts. Well, that’s not entirely true. I can eat peanuts, but if I do, I get an unplanned ride with my local EMS unit. So I choose to save myself that cab fare and avoid the whole dirty business of the peanut.

Unfortunately, my wife loves Thai food. Heck, I like the idea of liking Thai food — but for their use of the peanut as a culinary icon. Thais seem to have a great sense of balance in their food. While Thai cuisine is well known for its tradition of being very spicy, the culinary goal is actually balance. Thai cooks try to take salt, sweet, spicy and sour and place them in a balance to one another. So when I came up with the idea for this chicken satay recipe, I tried to get in my Thai mood.

To adapt to the gustatory desires of my wife, while maintaining the very important goal of not killing myself, I designed a recipe using an idea that recurs on this site — adapting a theme presented by another culinary tradition or recipe. Instead of using peanuts, though, I found another savory nut that is safe (for me) and adapted it. That lovely nut is the cashew.

In addition to harnessing adaptation, I think this dish builds upon two other culinary tricks: continuing a themed flavor and building flavors. What do I mean by continuing a themed flavor? Well, this is a common idea when cooking with wine and spirits. Cooks do this, for example, by putting bourbon in the dish and then serving the same bourbon in a cocktail with the meal.

Here, the cashew is the star flavor. Cashews are part of every step; cashew butter is used in both the marinade and the sauce. It keeps that nuttiness in the salty context of the marinade and in the sweetness of the sauce.

The other culinary trick is building flavors. In this way, we make two rather polar-opposite flavors be dominant in two places. This works to enhance both. You see this, for example, a tangy blue cheese is paired with a nice piece of filet mingon. These two have distinct and separate tastes, but together the richness of both increases the pleasure to the eater.

Here, we do this with a salty, tangy marinade and then introduce a rich, creamy sweet dipping sauce. It’s the combination of both that we used to try to strike that Thai sense of balance in the food, while bringing out the best parts of both. It’s best experienced by doing.

Finally, this dish doesn’t have a good deal of heat in it. The serrano peppers provide some heat, but they also have a fruity flavor. (This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful; remember the warning from an earlier entry.) If you want this dish hotter, I encourage you to trade out for the more traditional Thai chili, add more serranos, or add a dab of hot sauce or Thai chili sauce. But I would test first and then add more later. It’s like salt: You can always add more, but you can’t take away.

So for those of you allergic to the peanut, here is hope for us and continuing our culinary adventures!

Cashew butter

Cashew Butter


2 cups cashews

4 tbsp. sesame oil


IMG_0903.JPG Cashew butter This is very easy to do. Simply place the two cups of cashews in the food processor. Once the food processor begins to crunch them down, slowly add the sesame oil, one tablespoon at a time. Continue to let it run until you have an event paste. It should be about the consistency of peanut butter. Taste and add salt as needed.Notes: I used canned cashews. They have various levels of salt in them, so I try to choose the ones with the least amount and then salt later.

Be cautious with the cashews or sesame oil, if you have allergies or your dinner guests have allergies. These can still aggravate sensitive people. While I am allergic to peanuts, I am not nearly as bad as others. I’d encourage you to check your labels to make sure no peanut oil was used when roasting the nuts. Also, some brands of sesame oil are cut with a bit of peanut oil because peanut oil is cheap. So check your labels.

Cashew Chicken Satay

1 lbs chicken tenderloin

Marinade (recipe follows)


6 green onions (chopped)

2 tbsp. fresh cilantro (chopped)

1 serrano chile

3/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup lime juice

1/4 cup cashew butter

Extra hardware:

Bamboo skewers

Cashew chicken satay


  1. In a bowl, whisk together the marinade ingredients until you have a rough sauce.
  2. In a glass baking dish or similar wide vessel, pour about a third of the marinade. Lay the chicken pieces over the marinade, then pour the remaining mixture over top. The cashew bits in the butter will have a tendency to float, so layering is an attempt to keep a some of the cashews close to the chicken.
  3. Cover and place in the refrigerator for one hour. You don’t need to marinate this for long because the chicken tenderloins are small.
  4. Now is a good time to place the bamboo skewers in water to soak. They need to be wet because they will burn on the grill.
  5. About 30 minutes before you want to serve, prepare the cashew sauce. (See recipe below.)
  6. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and pat dry. Run the bamboo shoots through the center of the tenderloins.
  7. Over medium high heat, grill the tenderloins for about 3 minutes per side.
  8. Let cool, and serve with cashew sauce. Enjoy!

Cashew chicken satayCashew Sauce

6 green onions (chopped)

1 serrano chile

2 garlic cloves (minced)

3/4 cup cashew butter

1/4 cup dark brown sugar

7 oz coconut milk

2 tbsp. soy sauce

2 tbsp. sesame oil


  • In a medium saucepan or saucier, heat the sesame oil over high until you see subtle wisps of smoke. At this point, add the serrano chilies and green onion. BE CAREFUL; it will start to pop and sizzle so watch for the oil. After about 1 minute, add the garlic and turn down the heat to medium.

(Note: You can add more heat easily. You can add chilie sauce or red pepper flakes here before adding any of the vegetation. I associate this technique most with Indian cuisine. They love to toast their spices in oil before cooking. This lends a unique taste and flavor while also enhancing the spicy heat in a dish.)

  • After letting the garlic cook for another minute, add the cashew butter. This will stick to the sides of the dish and can burn relatively easily, due to the high fat and sugar content You are looking to quickly incorporate the vegetables’ heat and flavor into the dish.
  • After about 30 seconds, add the coconut milk, brown sugar, and soy and turn down to a simmer. Let cook for about 10 minutes, add the cilantro, and remove from heat.


  1. Hi – I read your recipe about Pad Thai. It is one of my favorites too! I don’t usually eat the peanuts because my friend said they are not good for me. Here in Thailand at the restaurant the penuts stay out on the table for a week or so. That can’t be so good! I’ll read more of your blog… have a look at my Thai Food blog if you want. I have many photos and videos. Thanks, and take care of your husband! Keep him away from his peanuts!

  2. Hi! Your husband is a great cook from the looks of the pictures! I’m Thai and I just wanted to say that real Thai food doesn’t use much peanuts 🙂 Only in the mainstream Thai culinary world is where peanuts are requested much for dishes; but authentic Thai food rarely even touches peanuts

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