I’ve decided I kind of love peanut sauce; it’s the latest food trend in my house.
Peanuts have made the list of heart-healthy foods to add to my diet; research shows they can help lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol levels. While peanuts, or ground nuts, are classified as legumes, they have many of the same beneficial health qualities as other more expensive actual nuts and are easy to find here in Mexico.
Historians say peanuts originated in South America or Mexico but that it was African immigrants (i.e., slaves) who incorporated them into the local cuisine, especially in the Yucatán, Oaxaca and Puebla. In dishes like encacahuatas — tortillas folded over in a spicy peanut sauce — pollo encacahuate and complex special-occasion sauces called encacahuatados, the humble peanut’s legacy shines in Mexico.
While I knew peanuts were grown and used in many countries, it was a surprise to discover how universally beloved peanut sauce in particular is. Cuisines the world over — including African, Indonesian, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Filipino — all have some version of it.
I’ve tried a good number of recipes and have settled on the first one, below, as my basic go-to. You want it to be salty, sweet, spicy and hot all at the same time, with flavors slipping from one to the next on your tongue. And if it’s an easy, no-cook recipe, all the better; while there are a good number of ingredients in this one, all are fairly common and only need to be stirred in.
In Indonesian cooking, peanut sauce is most often used on satay, or skewers; so much so that its name has become synonymous with the dish. In reality, you can use peanut sauce on any number of dishes: drizzled on grilled shrimp and pineapple, as a glaze on roast or grilled salmon, spooned over a grain bowl, mixed in cold soba or pasta salads, and, of course, on chicken, beef, veggie, tofu or pork skewers.
And there are lots of delicious modifications to try! Coconut milk, fish sauce (just a little), fresh or adobo chiles, honey and/or sugar, fresh grated ginger, a teaspoon of miso, sautéed onions or a bit of tamarind paste can all be added to the basic recipes below. Can’t find or don’t have natural unsweetened peanut butter? Just leave out the sugar. And, yes, other nut/seed butters (like almond, cashew or even tahini) can be used instead of peanut butter.
The trickiest part of this first recipe is mixing the peanut butter with the hot water — you want it to be smooth. Whisking by hand is the way to go.
I love this drizzled on a broccoli tofu stir-fry, to jazz up simple chicken and rice or even as a dipping sauce with veggie spring rolls.
Spicy Peanut Sauce
- ½ cup creamy peanut butter
- ¼–⅓ cup hot water
- 2 Tbsp. Thai red curry paste
- 2 Tbsp. light brown sugar
- 2 Tbsp. Sriracha
- 1 Tbsp. soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
- 1 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
- 1 tsp. finely minced garlic
- ½ tsp. red pepper flakes
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced
- Garnish: crushed peanuts, chopped cilantro
- Variation: Substitute coconut milk for half or all the water
In medium bowl, whisk together peanut butter and hot water till smooth. Stir in curry paste, sugar, Sriracha, soy sauce, vinegar, lime juice, garlic, red pepper flakes and scallions. Season with salt to taste. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in refrigerator up to two weeks. The sauce will thickens as it sits; stir in a tablespoon or two of water to thin to desired consistency if necessary.
Zesty Basil Peanut Sauce
- 20–30 fresh basil leaves
- ½ cup peanut butter, smooth or chunky
- ¾ cup coconut milk
- 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1-inch-long piece of ginger, grated
- ½ tsp. red chile flakes
- Juice of 2 limes
- ¼ tsp. salt
In food processor or blender, process all ingredients to a smooth paste. Adjust seasoning as needed.
Spicy Peanut Sauce #2
- ½ cup smooth peanut butter (not natural)
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 2 Tbsp. maple syrup
- 2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
- 1 Tbsp. sesame oil
- 2 tsp. chile oil or hot sauce, to taste
- 1 garlic clove, grated
In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients. Add ¼ to ½ cup water, 1 tablespoon at a time; whisk until sauce is a pourable consistency. Taste and add more chile oil or hot sauce as desired.
Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Facebook.