A Soto Ayam of One’s Own
If you think dining solo is a socially inconvenient experience, wait till you try cooking for one. Eve Tedja shares her culinary experiments.
Firm, aromatic stalks of lemongrass. Checked. Fresh turmeric root. Checked. Cream coloured candlenuts. Checked. The grocery list to prepare my favourite soto ayam from scratch always starts with these ingredients. Shortcuts will not do. Only fresh turmeric – not ground – and the best spices can produce a bright clear herbal broth that delights with every sip. My soto ayam should come with a perfectly soft-boiled egg, extra fried shallots, and still crunchy bean sprouts that do not flounder in the soup.
Yes, it’s much work for a bowl of yellow chicken soup that can be eaten at any street food stall in Bali for just Rp30,000 or less. Being raised by a mother who pooh-poohed the idea of instant seasoning or carton coconut milk is definitely one of the reasons why I prefer to fuss over this Indonesian comfort dish in my own kitchen. I know I deserve to eat well, even if I’m just cooking for one person.
I have embarked on solo cooking adventures for the last six years since my dear late mother passed away. Sadly, I never got down to master her vast repertoire of Indonesian (in particular, Balinese) and Chinese recipes. Undaunted, I asked my aunts for theirs. I searched for recipes online and bought a succession of cookbooks in a quest to replicate the flavours my mum used to impart in her dishes, whether it’s adding the right amount of nutmeg in potato fritters or shrimps in a stir-fry for that extra oomph. Living alone in Bali, in a food culture that emphasises on sharing, and shopping at food markets that tend to portion the ingredients for a family of at least four, I have to learn how to mentally divide the measurements.
Grocery shopping tends to be an awkward social experiment, especially at the local markets. “Why only one piece of ginger and four pieces of chillies? It won’t be enough,” said an ibu vegetable seller to me once, as she puts my paltry purchase in a small plastic bag. I explained to her that I only cook for myself to which she responded pityingly, “No husband?” in an disarmingly nosy manner. Of course, I can always go to the supermarket, where I would not be asked the same question. But it would mean that the ingredients would be pre-packaged in plastic and I would end up with too much of everything that stay in the fridge until they shrivel past their expiry dates. (I hate food waste.) Besides, everybody knows that the freshest ingredients are in the local markets.
Living and cooking solo is common in many Western countries and urbanised Asian cities. But, where I live, it is a social oddity. A German friend who came to Bali told me once that after exploring the island for a week and answering questions from naturally curious and friendly locals, she began to grasp the wisdom of a white lie. At the end of her trip, she had created a fictitious fiancé who just launched a cafe and couldn’t possibly leave his staff and his dachshund behind. The importance of collectivism is a hard concept to understand, especially if one comes from an individualistic culture. I have experienced both cultures in my life and even until know I am still baffled by the differences. Here, the idea that a person can be alone and not lonely is as alien as a single woman who has learned to find happiness in cooking and eating well for herself.
I wholeheartedly agree that food tastes so much better when it is shared, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t also eat well for dinner. Having grown up on a diet of tongue numbing sambal, my fortified palate craves for more chilli. The joy of cooking for myself is that I can add as many chillies as I want to a dish without upsetting anyone’s delicate stomach. Now, I have developed a weekly ritual. I give a new recipe a try and take the time to shop. As I put down my grocery bag, I connect my phone to the speaker and let Billie Holiday lull me as I wash, slice, cut, chop, blanch the ingredients and boil my soto ayam. Then, I carefully stack the glass noodles, bean sprouts and cabbage in a deep bowl, ladling in the aromatic yellow golden soup. I top it off with celery leaves, extra fried shallots, chopped chillies, and sliced eggs. It might not be a perfect soto ayam, but it is completely mine to savour.