To most North Americans barbecue sauce is some variation on a combination of ketchup, brown sugar, and vinegar, but on any given day on Planet Barbecue probably far more people are dipping grilled meats in peanut sauce. The basic formula starts with deep-fried peanuts or peanut butter and the flavorings typically include garlic and ginger for pungency, sugar for sweetness, and fish sauce or soy sauce for saltiness. The peanut-sauce belt begins in Indonesia (its probable birthplace) and extends through Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia, all the way to Hong Kong. The Singaporean version owes its fragrance to fresh lemongrass and ginger. Dried shrimp are available in Asian and Hispanic markets. Fish sauce isn't a bad substitute, although you can omit it and still wind up with a killer sauce. The addition of fried garlic chips is very characteristic of Southeast Asia.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 cloves garlic, 3 cloves thinly sliced crosswise and 2 cloves minced
1 shallot, minced
1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed and minced, or 2 strips (each 1/2 by 2 inches) lemon zest
1 to 3 small hot chiles, such as Thai chiles or serrano or jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded, and minced (for a hotter peanut sauce, leave the seeds in)
1 tablespoon dried shrimp, minced, or 1 teaspoon fish sauce (optional)
3/4 cup peanut butter
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk, or as needed
2 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice, or more to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground pepper
1. Heat the oil in a wok or saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the sliced garlic and cook, stirring, until golden, 2 minutes. Remove the garlic with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Add the 2 cloves of minced garlic, the shallot, lemongrass, chile(s), and dried shrimp, if using, to the wok and cook over medium-high heat until fragrant and lightly browned, 2 minutes.
2. Stir in the peanut butter, coconut milk, sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, if using (instead of the dried shrimp), lime juice, and 3/4 cup water. Reduce the heat and gently simmer the sauce until it is thick but pourable, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the cilantro during the last 2 minutes of cooking.
3. Just before serving, stir in the fried garlic slices. If the sauce has gotten too thick and pasty, add a tablespoon or so of water. Taste and correct the seasoning, adding salt and pepper, and more sugar and lime juice if needed. The sauce should be richly flavored.
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