1965 Sartee stall at Darwin Show

Sartee is the Chinese version of the Malaysian satay

It’s better known to most of us as a satay. But in Darwin many people, especially those in the Chinese community, call it a sartee. And, some say, it’s been a local speciality for around a hundred years. I first heard of the sartee during a television program, when a couple of celebrity chefs were touring the country trying to identify Australia’s national dish. (Spoiler: I think they fixed on the democracy sausage.)

Darwin, it turns out, has a number of local specialties, thanks to its multicultural makeup. Many people can claim a mix of European, Aboriginal and Asian ancestry and this diversity is reflected in their cooking. The Chinese community, in particular, can trace its history in Darwin back to the late 19th century when, they say, there were more Chinese people than Europeans in the emerging city. And it’s thanks to the Chinese heritage (perhaps influenced by Indonesia and Malaysia) that we have the sartee.

The keepers of the recipe for the true Darwin sartee are the Chung Wah Society. The society has been making and selling the spicy beef skewers at the Darwin Show and at Chinese New Year festivals since 1965. TV chef Adam Liaw writes that, as of 2023, the secret recipe for the marinade was only known to one Uncle Alfie,  who measured the ingredients in handfuls. The marinade for sartees, as distinct from satays, does not contain peanut butter but shares with its culinary cousin the key ingredients of ginger, garlic, soy sauce, curry powder, chilli, salt and sugar. In both cases, a lengthy period of immersion in said marinade is the secret to success.

The sartee isn’t the only local specialty. Another is bluchung (also blachung, belecan or blachan). Blachan is shrimp paste, but in Darwin (and in other northern centres including Broome, Western Australia and Cairns, Queensland) it means a kind of sambal or condiment that includes the paste. Among the other ingredients are red chillies (lots), ginger, onion, soy sauce, tamarind concentrate, sometimes magpie goose giblets, and vegetable oil. The making of bluchong is a malodorous affair, to the point where some families make it in the back yard to avoid stinking up the house. While the origin of the dish is probably Thai or Indonesian, it has long been a favourite with local Aboriginal people, perhaps dating back to trading with Makassan seafarers as early as the 17th century.

Indigenous/Chinese woman Eugenia Flynn has written about the intersection of Aboriginal and Asian culinary traditions in the Northern Territory in the literary magazine Lindsay. She also mentions chicken vermicelli, curry chicken and numus (a local version of escovitch) as significant dishes to First Nations people. Yet another writer on the subject names cabbage stew as a much-loved product of Chinese and Aboriginal kinship in the Territory.

I’ve visited Darwin several times but, sadly, failed to explore the local food scene in sufficient depth to discover any of these distinctive foods. Maybe next time.

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