As soon as I told my host family the initial evacuation announcement—that volunteers would be leaving, placed on administrative hold with the opportunity to return when the situation clears—the women ran to the kitchen. We’re making soto, said Mbak Iin. This was before the 24 hours notice that we would leave permanently. That’s when cooking class really escalated.
My host family and I had been saying for months how I needed to learn to prepare the family’s favorite dishes—the platefuls of boiled vegetables, homemade sauces, crushed chiles, and crispy corn fritters that we ate on a regular basis—before I returned to the US. But weekend mornings were when I was most available, and those were the days we ordered take-out. Suddenly our deadline was bumped up. Crash courses in Javanese cooking ensued.
In my last few days in Madiun (before I knew they’d officially be the last), I stood in the kitchen with a notebook, listing ingredients, estimating measurements, and snapping photos of the changing colors in the wok. I hoped to recreate them, while acknowledging that several items would be hard to come by stateside. Orange leaves? Candlenuts? And how different is aromatic ginger from plain old ginger root? (Very different in taste, texture, and color, evidently).
In the US, chicken soup is meant to warm you up in the winter, heal you when you’re sick. In Indonesia, soto ayam takes this sentiment a step further. Some consider it a national dish because you can find variations across the entire archipelago. And in a culture where hospitality is a given, soto ayam adds a special touch. While I was sick during pre-service training, my host mom rushed out to buy soto from down the street. During my site visit in Madiun, my counterparts invited me to try soto at their favorite place down the road from school. And when my parents visited Madiun, we stopped by the same restaurant. My host family would serve soto whenever other volunteers came to my site to help with an event. The dish’s various components can crowd a small table. Soto ayam makes you feel at home.
In my mind, soup always starts with a diced onion. But in Indonesian cuisine, a yellow onion is hardly required. Instead, garlic and red pearl onions often form the base of a dish. Red onions are all teeny-tiny in Java, so you use multiple at a time. Not to mention, they’re sweeter and carry less of a bite than the red onions that we grow in the US. (But we’re using yellow onion because that’s what we’ve got!)
Indonesian cooking is labor-intensive. For starters, soto ayam begins with a whole chicken—no pre-packaged chicken breasts from the poultry section of the grocery store. Chopped into manageable portions, the chicken fries while the cook gets started on the broth and sambal. Although my host family has a blender and a small food processor used for grinding meat, they use an angled mortar and pestle to mash chili, garlic, and salt to a smooth, fiery paste—and to make the bumbu, the spice puree. Sampai halusan, I was instructed. Keep going. It’s not smooth yet. Sore wrists are a common ailment in this household, and breakfast can require long, slow hours in the kitchen.
Soto ayam isn’t the chicken and rice soup we know in the States. This one is all about assembly. Each component is prepared separately and then assembled on the individual’s plate. This way, each person can control the flavor of their dish, adding heat from the sambal and acidity from the limes to their liking.
Cooking soto isn’t about accuracy. Think of this recipe as a guideline. I’m not even going to explain how to cook the chicken. You can fry, roast, grill, or cook it on the stove top; it doesn’t really matter, because the chicken is added last. The key is adjusting the spices in the soup until you like it. This is chicken soup after all; it’s mostly broth. Let’s not overthink it.
- Rice!!! First and foremost.
- 2 chicken breasts, roasted or fried.
- 2 eggs, hard-boiled
For the spice puree (bumbu)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup chopped red onion
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon coriander
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
- 1/2 cup chopped green onion (green and white parts)
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
For the broth (kuah)
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 quart chicken broth*
- 1 quart water
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 stalk lemongrass (or lemon thyme plus a squeeze of lemon)
For the chili paste (sambal)
- 1/2 cup chili peppers (small Hawaiian chilis, or any hot pepper you can buy)
- oil (canola, grape seed, or olive)
- 2 cloves garlic
- pinch salt
*1 quart = 4 cups in case, like me, you forgot.
Assembly/toppings: rice; sliced chicken breast; sliced boiled eggs; fried garlic slices; lime wedges
Prepare rice, chicken and hard boiled eggs.
Spice puree (Bumbu): In a food processor or blender, combine minced garlic, red onion, black pepper, turmeric, coriander, and fresh ginger. Blend until a thick, cohesive paste forms. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over low heat. When the oil is hot but not bubbling, add the paste. Cook over low heat. Stir and flip vigorously to avoid burning and sticking to the pan. Fold-in green onion and parsely. When the paste darkens to a reddish brown shade and the greens are incorporated, it’s done.
Broth (Kuah): In a large soup pot, sauté onion until translucent. Add chicken broth and water, and bring to a simmer. (My host family would add chicken feet and other leftover parts for more flavor. But there are no rules here. Do what you want.) Add bay leaves and lemongrass. Stir-in the spice puree until it dissolves in the broth. (Make sure it doesn’t fall like a lump to the bottom and burn). Let simmer for 15-20 minutes.
Chili paste (Sambal): Boil the chili peppers for 3-5 minutes, until softened. Sauté garlic cloves in oil, until browned. Add peppers, garlic, and salt to a food processor. Pulse until combined. Season with more salt to taste.
To assemble: Pour the broth over a hefty bed of rice. Mix in the pulled or sliced chicken, hard-boiled egg slices, sambal, and a squeeze of lime. Typically, fried garlic and krupuk crumbs would be added on top. But I couldn’t rationalize ordering $15 worth of shrimp crackers from Amazon during a global health crisis. Is krupuk an essential item? My host family would say pasti. Definitely. I say, mungkin lain waktu. Maybe next time.
Selamat makan means bon appetit, buen provecho, enjoy. ❤