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.

Epicure (Indonesia) - - FOOD TALK -

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.

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