They say that smell is the sense most linked to memory, and if that’s true, taste must follow close behind.
Whenever I taste peanut sauce, it’s like I’m teleported back to about 1999, Christmastime, around the dinner table. It was my small family, my nearly-senile, smelly-sweater-wearing grandpa, my uncle, and one of his long string of younger girlfriends with perms and degrees in fashion merchandising.
She–let’s call her Brandi because that sounds about right–wanted to help my mom make dinner that year. As my sister and I played with the cats to avoid interacting with actual relatives, she swooped out of the kitchen, lipsticked lips grinning. “It’s ready!”
“It” was peanut carrot soup. Or goop. Or something. It tasted like she’d put reduced-fat chunky Jif and rancid V-8 in a blender. Nasty. And we had to sit there fake-sipping it and saying “yum” without giggling (or gagging).
So you see, I would have written about peanut sauce earlier, if it weren’t for this one vivid flashback I have. Because 99% of the time, the sweet and savory peanut flavor, familiar to many American eaters thanks to Thai cooking, makes for an excellent hack. First of all, it can mask just about any mistake you make. Burned the rice a little? Peanut sauce. Made the noodles too garlicky? Peanut sauce. Cooked the chicken too long? Peanut Freaking Sauce. It’s not dainty, so it can hijack a dish’s flavor, sometimes to your benefit. (You can maximize that effect by making it spicier, by the way.)
It also goes well with lots of different foods, and works as a glaze, a dipping sauce, or a drizzler.
A simple-as-possible version, with stuff you probably already have around the house, is two parts peanut butter, two parts soy sauce, one part hot sauce, one part lime or lemon juice, one part brown sugar, and one clove minced garlic. Whisk on medium heat till it bubbles.
If you have coconut milk, which will add another silky dimension to the sauce, stir in one part of that, too. If you’ve got a scallion, chop and toss it in. And if you do have something to hide, just blast off your diners’ taste buds with chili paste or extra hot sauce and you’re covered.
Once you’ve got your sauce:
Cut chicken breasts into generous cubes, slide onto skewers, grill or broil, and baste with peanut sauce for a chicken satay.
Toss with cooked rice noodles (or other chewy noodles) for a pad Thai-inspired dish.
Mix into stir-fried veggies, like broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, and sugar snap peas.
Use it as a salad dressing. Thin it out with a little extra citrus juice, let it cool, and drizzle over romaine. To go with an Asian theme, top with shredded carrots and bean sprouts
Combine with cooked white or brown rice to give your side dish a little something extra.
Use as a dipping sauce for chicken or shrimp lettuce wraps.
Drizzle on spring rolls.
Pour into a plastic bag and marinade steak for a few hours before grilling.
Enjoy. (Just not as a soup, please.)
Illustration by Claire Jelly.