‘Soto’ reflects RI’s rich culinary culture
Where did soto (traditional Indonesian soup) come from? And what makes a soto? There is no clear answer to those questions even though Indonesia is home to at least 75 different variants of soto, a favorite local dish that has begun to attract global attention.
According to one food expert, soto has become a symbol of the country’s national motto, Bhineka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity). “Although the contents can differ, everyone agrees to call [the dish] soto,” historian Fadly Rahman of the Bandung Padjajaran University (Unpad) said at a seminar on soto.
The event was organized by the Creative Economy Agency (Bekraf ) and held during the Indonesia Culinary Conference and Creative Expo on Oct. 3 to 4 at Gadjah Mada University (UGM), Yogyakarta.
From 2013 to 2017, some variants of Indonesian soto were listed among the world’s top street dishes by the World Street Food Congress (WSFC). In 2013, Soto Ayam Ambengan Pak Sadi in Central Jakarta was crowned the world’s best street food.
Fadly, who has studied the history of soto, said that the traditional cuisine most probably originated from China. The word soto, he said, might come from the Chinese term cau du or shao du, which in Hokkien is pronounced “sio-to.”
“Shao means to cook, du is the cow’s internal organs and cau refers to the spices used to cook the broth,” Fadly explained.
He was referring to a variant of soto called soto babat, which usu- ally contains beef tripe. He argued that use of tripe in soto was in line with the cooking tradition of Cantonese people who migrated to Indonesia centuries ago. At that time, he said, beef was very expensive and only consumed by the Dutch,
“Soto started gaining popularity in the 19th Century in Semarang [Central Java], which was a stronghold of Chinese communities. Then, it spread and became the food of the indigenous people,” he said.
But soto babat is just one of many types of soto in Indonesia.
Food expert and chef William Wongso said soto was basically a “murky” soup.
“Soup is clear, while soto is usually murky because of its ground seasoning,” he said.
He added that there was no clear definition of what constitutes as soto, but the basic concept of the dish is that it is a stew containing meat and vegetables, then cooked with ground seasoning.
Researcher Murdijati Gardjito of UGM’s center of food and nutrition studies said that she and her team had discovered 75 different takes on soto across Indonesia. The team divided the country into 34 culinary regions and soto was found in 22 of them.
These variants included soto Aceh, soto Betawi, soto Tenggiri from Jambi and soto Grombyangan from Pekalongan, Central Java.
Each region, she said, had its own variation of ingredients, but those that are commonly used were chicken, bean sprouts, glass noodles and beef.
“Some [soto dishes] contain clear broth, others do not; the majority — or 64 percent — is yellow [curry]. This is in line with the theory that soto might have come from India,” Murdijati said.
Considering its ubiquity, Murdijati concluded that soto was a representation of Indonesia’s culinary culture.
The dish can mostly be found in Java and the Madura Islands in East Java, as well as in Sumatra, West Nusa Tenggara (NTB), Sulawesi and Kalimantan. It can also be served and enjoyed on any occasion, at any time of the day.
In Yogyakarta and in other cities in Java, soto is commonly sold in the morning as a breakfast dish at fine restaurants, roadside stalls and by street vendors.
Bekraf director of creative economy development and research, Wawan Rustiawan, said that Indonesia’s culinary sector was part of its creative economy, and was expected to serve as the backbone of the country’s economic growth.
According to the Central Statistics Agency (BPS), the creative economy contributed some Rp 852 trillion (US$614 billion) to Indonesia’s gross domestic income (GDI) in 2015. Rp 350 trillion, or 41 percent, of the figure came from the culinary sector.
“It employed 7.4 million people in 2015, which has since increased to 7.9 million,” he said, adding that Bekraf aimed to promote soto and coffee as the main culinary icons of the archipelago.
Stacks of bowls:
A woman serves soto kudus in bowls stacked on top of each other before the cooking broth is poured on them. Soto Kudus is among the rich variants of Soto in Indonesia, hailing from Kudus in Central Java.