It was 2005, and I was assisting a bunch of geography professors to study the impacts wrecked by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami on the Andaman coast of Thailand, some six months after the disaster. For two weeks, we moved around Khao Lak and Koh Lanta in a rented van, visiting sleepy coastal villages to interview inhabitants of their experience when the big wave came—accounts range from harrowing to sad, with occasional funny anecdotes weaved in.
During one of these trips, while driving along rural roads flanked by rows of rubber trees that typically characterise the landscapes of southern Thailand, we pulled up by the roadside for some reason I can’t quite remember now. Perhaps someone wanted to take a leak, maybe the smokers wanted a puff, or maybe the driver wanted to check on his vehicle. But when the van stopped, a few of us tumbled out of the vehicle.
And that was when Ajarn May spotted wild sator (สะตอ) pods hanging from a tree. Her eyes lit up and her fingers reached out to pluck a pod from a cluster of slightly twisted ribbons. “It’s my favourite food in Indonesia when I was doing fieldwork there,” I recall her saying. “It’s stinky but I love it,” she went on, trying to explain her fondness for the stink bean to a horde of farang academics.
When everyone was ready to roll, the sator pod followed us into the van. By then Ajarn May had begun to peel off the almond-shaped beans from the pod, popping them raw into her mouth. She proceeded to ask if anyone would like to try the beans, but her invitation was met with polite declines. Although my Thai was already at an intermediate level then, my understanding of Thai culinary culture was still in its infancy and I hadn’t mastered the act of imbibing vegetables in their raw forms yet. But I did remember a peculiar smell that followed us throughout the journey.
Sator isn’t unique to Thailand though; it’s also a common culinary ingredient in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. In fact, petai—as what sator is called in Malay—is often found stir-fried with sambal at Malay food stalls in Singapore too but my interest in these stinky beans was only roused following Ajarn May’s induction. Till today, I can’t look at fresh sator pods or eat these beans without reminiscing that particular roadside stop or that one great inspiring figure during my undergraduate days. And I’m also quite pleased to declare that a decade later, my appetite for Thai food and culture has grown to a voracious level and sator also makes a regular appearance in my kitchen.
A note of caution: sator highly lives up to its namesake and will make its mark as it passes through a human body—the beans leave a lingering smell in the mouth and expect weird-smelling urine for a couple of days. It’s no wonder why flatulence jokes often abound between Mr.P and I following a sator meal…
สะตอผัดกุ้ง | sator phat kung | stir-fried stink beans with shrimps
2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
3-4 garlic cloves, sliced
3-4 shallots, sliced thinly
3-4 bird’s eye chillies, sliced
1/2 cup sator, sliced into half
300g shrimps, deveined and cleaned
A dash of kapi (or belacan)
Fish sauce to taste
1. To a wok of vegetable oil on high heat, add garlic and shallots, frying them until fragrant.
2. Stir in kapi and chillies, followed by a bit of water to ensure the mixture is well-mixed.
3. Add shrimps and when they start to turn pink, toss in sator. Continue frying the mixture for a few minutes. Add fish sauce to taste.