Making a Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear

The phrase, “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” was coined by Johnathan Swift’s punster Mr. Neverout in A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation In Several Dialogues published in 1738. When quill touched cotton, the phrase was used to refer to the strange character of Sir John. Mr. Neverout uses it to proclaim that Sir John, being of low birth, is not a proper Duke and deftly goes on to disparage his character. Although this turn of the phrase is still in play, it has over the years also been used to discourage ingenuity and inventiveness or to encourage people to accept things as they are – in other words, to not rock the boat.

This month’s 5-Star Foodie Makeover Challenge was Junk Food. Specifically, we were asked to use junk food or a favorite snack in a real dish of our choosing. I really hated this idea at first and didn’t want to do it, I thought of telling the group organizers that I was unable to participate due to illness, overwork or travel – something – some excuse NOT to participate.

Having selected my junk food and prepared my dish, I think it was a great challenge and although I am new to the group, I hope that future challenges will be so . . . well I’m not sure whether thought provoking or emotion inspiring is the right phrase, but there it is. I used bar snacks: Beer Nuts, 5-Alarm Chili Peanuts and Planter’s Creamy Peanut Butter to make delicious Malaysian Chicken Satay that we all loved – even the kids. What’s not to like about that.

I suppose the there was a bit of artful dodgerness in the selection of junk food – its not really junky. I mean, come on, its not a Twinkie right! That said, I never use processed or flavored peanuts in my satay sauce, and despite the millions of recipes on the web for peanut sauce from peanut butter, I have never used it before the challenge for that purpose. So the challenge forced me to abandon my habits and preconceived notions and to try something outside of my food box – which, covering the continent of Asia, is generally pretty big.

Junk Food used in Challenge

This recipe is a wonderful example of how meat is eaten all across the Indo-Malay archipelago. It is marinated for hours in a sweet and spicy paste, then barbequed on a grill and drizzeled with a rich and flavorful peanut-based sauce. Feel free to substitute beef or shrimp for the chicken and adjust the cooking times, or make a mix of all three meats and allow diners to mix and match flavors.

Grilled Chicken with Peanut Sauce (Satay)

1 lb, chicken, chilled and cut into thin slices

8 shallots
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
2 stalks lemon grass, sliced
2 tablespoons ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup water (more as needed)
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt

In a food processor, or blender, make a smooth paste out of the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric and water (using water ½ cup at a time). Set aside.

In a wok, dry roast coriander seeds over medium heat until they become fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and empty into food processor or grinder and blend into a fine powder. Mix dark soy sauce and salt with the ground coriander and then add to the lemongrass paste.

Rub paste mixture into both sides of the chicken. Sprinkle the cumin powder over the chicken and marinate for at least 2 hours at room temperature. If you wish to marinate overnight – cover and refrigerate.

When almost ready to cook, prepare the peanut sauce (see below) below and set aside. Thread seasoned meat on to fine metal or soaked bamboo skewers. Grill over charcoal or gas fire or under hot grill 3 minutes per side.

Chicken and Beef Satay

Spicy Peanut Sauce (Satay)
5 shallots
2 teaspoons garlic, peeled and diced
2 stalks lemon grass, thinly sliced
¼ cup lime juice
Water (as needed to make a thick sauce)
2/3 cup beer nuts
1/3 cup Planter’s five-alarm chili peanuts
2 tablespoons Planter’s creamy peanut butter
6 dried red chili peppers, diced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar

In a blender, grind shallots, garlic, lemongrass and lime juice into a fine paste – adding water as necessary. Add ground peanuts and peanut butter and grind until blended. The key to this recipe is not to add too much water too soon, so use a gentle hand.

Heat oil in wok or saucepan and stir fry peanut paste for 3-5 minutes. Lower heat and cook covered for another 5-10 minutes until lemongrass softens.

Add chili peppers, ginger, salt, and sugar and cook over a low heat for 5-10 minutes till sugar is dissolved, stirring constantly. The sauce will darken considerably as it cooks.  Cool peanut sauce and serve with barbecued meat.


Even made with junk food, this recipe is a winner.  Unlike a lot of satay sauces it balances the peanut flavor with the flavors offered by the other ingredients.  What I like most about this recipe is the strong gingery flavor that the marinade and sauce combined offer to diners.  The recipe for the sauce makes a lot, so either cook a lot of meat or do as I do – save the sauce for later use.  It can be reheated and used on meats and vegetables or used cold as a dip for veggies.

Sows Ear Purse

In closing I’d like to attest that it is possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear – both figuratively AND literally. In the first sense, it is possible to use salty snacks that one would pop back while watching TV or enjoying a drink to create a great chicken satay. In the latter sense, well . . . I think you all understand what literally means.

It seems that in 1921, Massachusetts industrialist Arthur D. Little was tired of hearing Mr. Neverout’s discouraging phrase, and set out to prove him wrong. He instructed the scientists and engineers working for him to make a silk purse out of “pork by-products”. From a meat-packer they obtained a form of glue made from the skin and gristle of sows’ ears. Taking an amount roughly equivalent to one sow’s ear, he had it filtered and forced through a spinneret into a mixture of formaldehyde and acetone. This glue emerged as 16 fine, colorless streams that hardened and then combined to form a single composite fiber. Little soaked the fiber in dyed glycerin. Then he wove the resulting thread into cloth on a handloom-and fashioned the cloth into the elegant purse shown here, the kind of item carried by Medieval ladies.

Silk Purse Made from a Sow’s Ear

If you would like to know more about this interesting tidbit from the History of Science, click on Suki’s snout on the picture above for a full period description of the effort. I think its ingenious and charming and I absolutely adore the subtitle: A Contribution to Philosophy. To all who encounter a Mr. Neverout from time to time. Take a look at this every time you start to feel discouraged. It won’t last long.

(Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Chicken and Beef Satay by Btktan @; Photo of purse and pamphlet on creation of a Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear from MIT Archives and Special Collections; 5-Star Foodie Challenge Hosted by 5 Star Foodie & Lazaro Cooks!)


25 thoughts on “Making a Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear

  1. It’s funny how many of us had the same initial reaction about the challenge and then warmed up and rose to the occasion. You sure did! I like the idea of including those 5-alarm chili peanuts to give a hint of heat. Very nice.

    • Hi Joan:

      Thanks for stopping by the site! I did do a lot of griping about this Challenge. But in the end it was really interesting! I love your choice of chocolate covered coffee beans and the presentations as amuse bouche that you did on the spoons with different ingedients – lovely!

  2. And, did your entry count? I reckon if your peanuts and peanut butter had flavourings or additives in them it should definitely count although, sadly, there are a lot of people these days who think that overprocessed peanut butter is still a health food. And I’ve seen Indonesians and Malaysians use Heinz tomato sauce (ketchup) in their cooking so maybe that would’ve counted too. I’m sure this was delicious at any rate! I love a good satay.

    • I think it does . . . I hope it does! That’s the only entry I’m cooking for this challenge! yes the chili peanuts have salt, and chili pepper and other spices, the beer nuts have salt and sugar and the peanut butter – well that has all sorts of scientific things in it.

      Did you read the pamphlet on making the silk purse – its really interesting!

      Glad to hear from you now that you are getting back into the swing of blogging after growing your family – come back soon!


      • Yes, I did! The linguist in me adored finding the little-used, yet gorgeous animal-related words “lepidopteran” and “porcine” as well as the idea of taking a colloquialism to the literal through the employment of science. And, yes, the philosopher in me did feel a little bit reminded that most, if not all, things are possible.

  3. This is so funny, and a real challenge – made to rock us out of our comfort zone. I use all-chemical ketchup sometimes when cooking, something most Italians would consider absolutely gross. And thank you for pointing me to the wonderful ‘Contribution to Philosophy’; I had never heard of it, it highlights all the magic of science.

    • Hi C:

      Do you still skin your tomatoes? If not, you need to check your passport – you may be turning English! Its okay, I generally don’t skin mine anymore either. Although I was brought up doing it. God, I miss escarole soup!

      Have your ever posted on Mostarda? If not, you may wish to consider it to discuss the regional and even famiial variations. On the web, it is described as spicy and piquant and my experience with it from Ravenna to Venice to the Piedmont is nothing but sweet.

  4. This really is a stunning dish! I love the flavors you’ve blended here, and especially the strong gingery flavor that you mention. You did a fantastic job demonstrating that a silk purse can in fact be made from a sow’s ear. 🙂

  5. The whole point of these challenges is to push us out of our comfort zones. Really when we push our percieved limits of our cuisine, is when we start creating.

    Your satay looks great. Fantastic idea to incorporate your junk food choices. Hope you will stay with our challenges. They may be even more “out there” next time.

    Be well

    • Hi Laz:

      This one did push me. I didn’t like it at first. interesting to find out that so many had a problem with it! But those of us who stayed with it found it both challenging and interesting.

      Will stay with the challenge, it seems interesting and does push me to do thing’s I wouldn’t ordinarily do, which is cool.


    • Hi Natasha:

      Thanks for visiting! It was a good challenge. I changed my mind about a lot – at first I hated it and later, I liked it and I think the post came out well too – a nice addition to the site.


    • Hi Angela:

      Thanks for the visit. Seems you were one of the few who really loved the idea from the outset. The savory cheescakes you made look lovely!

  6. Hi Laura! I always make my satay sauce from scratch (roasted peanuts, grinding them, etc) and it can be such a pain. So it’s nice to know there’s an easier way to do this, and if you didn’t tell us there’s junk food in here, I wouldn’t have known any better! Glad to be cooking with you in the group 🙂

  7. Hi Maya:

    Welcome to the site!

    Your cheeto churros was inspired! In comparison, my junk food wasn’t too junky at all. Just peanuts with coatings on them instead of plain.

    Its interesting to me that you described the consistency of the junk food dough as so different from proper dough. Imagine how much harder it is for our bodies to digest if our machines can’t pipe it .

    Thanks for stopping by!


  8. Nothing junk-y about that satay platter. Looks fabulous!
    Such an interesting post, especially the silk purse story…gotta love scientists and engineers as well as chefs!

  9. Hi Lori Lynn!

    Thanks! Likewise with your conrnuts salsa over dover sole that you cooked! I love cornnuts – they are probably my favorite snack, but I couldn’t think of what to do with them that fit with the overall theme of the blog. Glad you liked the silk purse story too. I thought that it was a nice way to add context to the challenge and an interesting bit of technology history.

    I also love the photo of Machu Piccu – it looks like the ruins of Gondor from Tolkein with the circular walls so clearly shown. An unusual view and very well done!


  10. Hi Laura, can I have it extra spicy please? Did I tell you I love nuts and chicken satay?? I could snack on those nuts all day. It’s really cleaver to use nuts in this dish and your combination of flavors sounds delicious!

    • Hi Tanantha!

      Welcome to the site!

      And yes, you do look great in that Chef’s coat! That’s the new one without all of the spatters and stains – right?


  11. Hard to decide what I liked better, the recipe or the story and resulting silk purse. Brilliant researching, as always, Laura. I do like your dish though. For some reason haven’t had sate in ages. You made my mouth water with this one… the extra ginger punch in the chicken with the peanut sauce sounds delish… oh I can’t wait to cook again!!

    • Thanks Deana!

      Your Poutine avec Foie Gras was fabulous as well – and photographed on nice china – the rib-sticking dish will never be the same again. You elevated it to new heights.

      Good thing about business travel this weekend is you probably don’t have to cook Easter dinner.

      Look forward to your Ancient Roman entry.

      Since I might be away when you post, please just back link to the site and to the Roman Cookoff announcement. When I return, I’ll post a slug leading to LPR.


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