On the Question of Soto – by Max Lane

KAdipiro 1

On a Sunday morning in Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia, there is no guarantee of getting a spot on one of the benches to sit and have your chicken soto soup.  Perhaps if you get there at 7am, you might get a seat straight away – perhaps. Otherwise, you will join the ‘queue’ that mills around inside the cramped café-restaurant until there is a spot on a bench. About 8 people can sit around a table, three on each side and one person at each end. Of course, if you are part of a group then the milling around may take longer as you wait for a similar sized group to get up and leave. Fortunately, the atmosphere is such that people do not linger after they eat but, on the other hand, the food is so good that they may decide to order seconds, as I almost always do.

The most common word for an eating place such as this one is a ‘rumah makan’ – literally an eating house. Some rumah makan are like a restaurant in Australia – similar building space and atmosphere. Others, because of a simplicity originating from minimal resources, feel different. The building and space is somehow plainer, even where there are decorations, even while still being clean and solid. This rumah makan, which sells only chicken soto soup, is of an even simpler character.

It is a basic timber building. One story. It was probably built in the 1930s, or even earlier. It is crowded. Longish tables with benches for seating crowd the main dining area. I think even today the benches are those I sat upon in 1970. There are also benches along the main serving counter where one can squeeze in for a bowl of soup.  On a Sunday, when there is that milling ‘queue’, it can feel almost claustrophobic. This seems to discourage only a very few people.

I first ate there in either December 1969 or January 1970. It was my first visit to Indonesia, and I was staying with a local family. On some Sundays, they had the custom of hiring a horse and carriage and the family would go the Warung Kadipiro. It was a five- or ten-minute journey for the horse to take us there. Back then, 50 years ago, it was already a famous place for the chicken soto soup – I will just call it soto here.

It’s fame was well deserved. The soto was then and is now unbelievably delicious. As I said, I have never ever only ordered one bowl. The crowds eating there, especially on the weekends, but any day, are also testimony to the deliciousness of the food. Along the street where it is located, there are many other rumah-makan with the same. And we always hear that they have been set up by family members. Occasionally, when the ORIGINAL is too full, I have tried these other places, and they can never even get close to matching the original in its deliciousness.

In some ways, the soto is a mystery. It is a quite simple dish. A smallish bowl of a clear consommé – perhaps with a touch of turmeric colour – which contains rice, shredded cabbage, half a potato patty (perkedel) and a small amount of shredded chicken. No spectacular ingredients. Yet, its freshness of taste alone is addictive. What does it taste like? Hmmm  …. a savoury taste with a slight tinge of cabbage and chicken, I suppose, but that cannot really describe it. There is a kind of magical freshness to the broth. A part of the overall deliciousness I always enjoy is the perkedel. The little round potato balls are flavoured with a tinge of their mystery spices – I always add 1 or 2 of these to the soup.

Additionally, there are extra flavouring. On the bench, at each end, there will be a bowl of chilli “sambal”.  The bowl of chilli condiment will be large enough to last through quite a few customers. I put sambal in quotation marks because it is not your typical ground chilli paste. The chillies in the bowl look they have been hammered in a pestle and mortar, but they are more torn and broken rather than turned into a paste. The ripped chillies lie there in water, perhaps with few drops of vinegar, and there will be a few small slices on tomato leaking their flavour into the reddish mixture. You decide for yourself how hot you want your soto. Spoon some of the water into the soto; or perhaps some of the chilli and its seeds, and maybe take slice of the tomato.  It adds not only heat but an extra zing of flavour as well.

By the time one adds this and that, the clear consomme has been re-coloured by all the additions.

One of the reasons customers leave full as well as satisfied is that plated there on the table are other foods that you can add to the soup. There are big pieces of chicken that have been pre-boiled in spicy liquid and then fried in coconut oil. And there are tofu and tempe – soya bean products – that have been cooked in Javanese bajem style. They have slowly cooked in water that has been flavoured by spices but flavoured mostly by the coconut sugar and salam leaves (a kind of curry leaves) giving them a darkish brown colour. As I said above, I usually add some of the little round potato balls plus one other side dish. This is ampela (chicken giblets). The giblets, wrapped together with some intestines, appear to have been cooked in more mystery spices. They are served cut up into small pieces and mixed with that Indonesian style sweet soy sauce. Very tasty indeed stirred into the soto and eaten together with a bite of a potato ball and a spoon of that magical consomme.

Oh yes, take a big fish flavoured rice flour cracker out of one of the big tins at the end of each table.

The consommé is a clear liquid. So whatever that has made it magical is colourless. Is it a mystery spice that had dissolved in the clear liquid? (Hopefully, all this is not just a question of using the right amount of MSG.) Is it some secret in the way it is cooked? I did once have a glimpse into the kitchen where I could see a great number of piles of wood that was used for the cooking. I don’t know what kind of wood it was, but it was all of the same kind and size. Is that secret – wood fore stoves? But how does that affect the flavour of the soup? There is no taste of smokiness? Is it then something to do with a different kind of heat produced by the burning wood? Of course, it may have nothing to do with the wood, but then why keep using wood for decades and decades, when there is now also gas?

As you can imagine living in Jogjakarta, I have eaten at Warung Kadipiro many times. And without fail, I leave there not just super satisfied but puzzled.

Why? How?

Why? How?

It is such simple food.    Or, is it?

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