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Feeding The Nation

Oh, soto!

There’s something about soto. Jakarta must surely be the home of soto, because it is in this bustling metropolis that just about every food from across the archipelago can be found, and that’s because it is probably home to all 1,700 Indonesian ethnic groups. Where there are people, there is their food.

Words by Janet DeNeefe

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Soto is divided into two categories: the elegant clear broth type or the luscious milky type using coconut milk or, in some cases, cow’s milk. Soto betawi is Jakarta’s own brand of soto and, according to Bondan Winarno, a man who knows his makanan, Bang Husen in Manggarai dishes up just about the best, adding a generous amount of smooth, luscious coconut milk along with a secret blend of sultry spices. Small chunks of beef are wok-tossed, adding an appealing crisp-edged chewiness, and then topped with ladles of the mellow seasoned coconut milk, creating a dreamy contrast of flavours and textures. Bang Husen has been serving his famous soto for more than 20 years and has a huge following. Lunchtime is standing room only. Enjoyed with sambal, lime, krupuk and steamed rice, it’s comfort food par excellence.

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Soto Makassar is another famous soto, from (you guessed it) Makassar! A fullbodied, unctuous, slow-rolling beef broth is mixed with cooked chunks of beef, intestines and herbs against a backdrop of multilayered spices. Coto Nusantara in Makassar is legendary, and midday is wall-to-wall with just about everyone in town. Accompaniments are krupuk for crunch, sambal and slices of lime to tang up the richness of the meat. I’ve been told the lime cuts the cholesterol too.

Soto ayam Lamongan, from Surabaya, is topped with – get this one – koya, prawn crackers crushed up with garlic. Arie Parikesit, founder of Kelana Rasa Culinary Solutions, says this curious mix is essential for adding extra flavour and to thicken the broth. I bet crunch has a lot to do with it too. (I’m wondering if Indonesians invented cornflakes.) Glass noodles, sprouts, slivered cabbage, Chinese celery and spring onion are topped with the seasoned, velvety chicken broth and a mountain of pulled chicken, slices of boiled egg and herbs, and the glamorous koya finishes this goldmine of flavour.

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Empal gentong from Cirebon is a coconutbased soto that my faithful Indonesian food companion and photographer, Suzanty Sitorus, adores, and rightly so. There’s a seductive hint of ginger, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom and cloves in the glossy broth that says ‘spice islands’. The result is melt-in-yourmouth beef and offal in a golden pool of seasoned coconut milk, topped with crisp shallots and spring onions.

“I love soto mi,” says Kevindra Prianto, Jakarta-based food writer and host of the new Iron Chef. This Bogor-style soto combines slices of deep-fried noodle-filled spring rolls, beef tendon or trotters, tomato, cabbage, potato and Chinese celery and is lathered with beef-marrow stock and served with melinjo crackers. The combination of textures and flavours seems to be the key once again: the crisp spring roll, the tender beef, the rich, meaty-sweet slightly peppery broth and the sour freshness of lime leaves, lemongrass and lime juice. “This is what makes soto mi so extremely delicious,” claims Kevindra. “Eat it with a squeeze of lime and you have a marriage made in heaven!”

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“Soto Bandung is my favourite because it’s deliciously fresh,” says my friend Triny Tresnawulan, from Bandung, West Java. This almost minimalist soto combines a gingery, lemongrassy, light beef broth with tender beef, paper-thin full moons of white daikon and fried soy beans, topped with Chinese celery and fried shallots. Fresh chilli sambal, lime and prawn crackers finish the picture in a statement of clean, healthy, modern eating that’s perfect for a hot day.

Soto Medan is a creamy, coconutty bowl of sustenance that lives up to its North Sumatran expectations with all the glory of cumin, pepper, coriander seeds and ginger. Served with shredded chicken, potato, tomato and boiled egg, it’s an action-packed Malay meal. “I love it,” says cult food lover-Rahung Nasution. “It’s Peranakan cuisine and we eat it with potato perkedel, too.” Krupuk melinjo, sliced lime and sambal are the other regular accompaniments. It’s starting to feel like laksa.

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In Bali, soto sapi, beef broth soup, soto Madura and Surabaya-style soto ayam are regulars at night markets and street stalls. Soto Ayam Cak Man in Gatot Subroto, Denpasar, is a spacious barn-like establishment that offers friendly 24/7 service. I opted for the soto with the lot, which includes glass noodles, not too thin, slivers of moist poached chicken, chunks of liver and other meaty bits, curiously rubbery sliced egg yolk and white, crisp shallots and Chinese celery leaves all drenched with the luscious chicken broth. Adding lime juice really does make a huge difference and, eaten with steamed rice, it’s a generous, nutritious meal that’s also decidedly refreshing.

That’s the mere tip of the soto-berg. There are countless others that didn’t make these pages. One of the common threads in a good soto is simply the vendor, usually male, who takes great pride in the authenticity of his food and also the unique presentation. Spice pastes are made from scratch, and traditional carts or carriers are used to indicate regionality. After all, it’s about identity. It has been said that soto could, in fact, be Indonesia’s national dish as it can be found from Sumatra to Papua. No matter where you are, there will always be soto.

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Some historians dispute the origins of soto, stating that this beloved bowl of broth was probably introduced by Chinese immigrants during the colonial era, while others believe the presence of turmeric and spices, such as cumin, indicates an Indian–Arab influence. But nobody can doubt that it is now an Indonesian treasure of the most humble, heart-warming kind. It speaks of street food, lunchtimes with school friends and late nights. If chicken soup is good for the soul, then a bowl of warm soto is good for the entire being, any time of day.

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Will Goldfarb

Melbourne-born Janet DeNeefe, the founder & director of the annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Ubud Food Festival and Bali Emerging Voices Festival, has lived in Bali for nearly three decades. Her latest book is Bali: Food of My Island Home, following her memoir Fragrant Rice. She is also the owner of Casa Luna, Indus and Bar Luna restaurants in Ubud.