Soto, generally speaking, is a dish of meat, meat broth, and rice, rice cakes, or noodles. It might be considered Indonesia's national dish, served as it is from Sumatra to Papua and in enough variations to fill an entire cookbook (say, there's an idea). It's said that the humble soto was once the food of sultans.
We'd never paid much attention to soto. Much like Vietnam's national dish, pho, soto is omnipresent, available in many an open-air eatery and on seemingly every other street corner. But really truly delicious soto - now, that's another story. If you've had one MSG-laden so-so soto, you've had them all - or so we thought.
Until in Jogjakarta, over the course of three bowls of soto, our friend Adzan opened our eyes to the possibilities inherent in a simple bowl of soup.
Our first stop: Soto Kadipiro, housed in a tile-roofed wooden structure and furnished with wood-and-glass display cases and old-style formica-topped tables, aged bird cages hanging from the ceiling. We fell in love with the place the moment we walked in the door.
The specialty here is chicken soto, saffron hued broth of chicken, turmeric, ginger, garlic, shallots, and daun salam (also known as 'Indonesian bay leaf' though it has no relationship whatsoever to Western bay leaf) packed with shreds of chicken meat, shredded cabbage, and barely sprouted soy beans, all crowned with carmelized shallots and chopped cilantro. (We asked for rice to be placed in our bowls, though it's possible to order it on the side.)
What's unusual at Kadipiro is the accompanying sambal, sliced tomatoes mixed with chopped fresh chilies and a bit of vinegar (behind the soto, above).
Kadipiro opened its doors in 1924 and is now overseen by the original owner's son, Bapa Widadi Dirojo Utomo. His brother prepares the soto according to the original recipe, using about 50 chickens a day; the place is so popular the soto's often sold out by noon.
At Kadipiro you can wash your soto down with Sarsaparilla, a refreshing, vaguely root beer-reminiscent beverage that's been produced in Jogja since at least the sixties. We love the bottle and its label, which just looks so right on one of Kadipiro's plastic-topped tables.
From white meat we moved to dark, at Soto Pak Sholeh Al Barokah, another oldy-but-goody soto establishment. The sign over Pak Sholeh's entrance translates to something along the lines of 'If you give good things good things will come back to you.'
Pak Sholeh does indeed give good things, in the form of a luscious beef soto. For a beef-based broth this soto's is surprisingly light on the palate, but completely satisfying. An order of soto also contains cabbage, sprouts, beef chunks, and the odd piece of tomato, chopped cilantro on top.
Diners can, if they wish, dip into the bowls on each table that are filled with with chunks of dried, smoked beef. Though it looks as if it might be tough as nails the meat is surprisingly tender (I wanted to carry a few pieces back to KL, slice them thin, and slap them between two pieces of good Dijon mustard-slathered bread. It's a plan for our next visit). The sambal on the side is hot as hell (a plus in our book).
Pak Sholeh entered the beef soto trade as an assistant to his uncle and began selling the dish on his own as an ambulatory street vendor in 1952. In 1984 he set up a small warung which, a decade or so later, assumed its current form: an airy, homey shop furnished with wooden chairs and tables and a bits and pieces of family memorabilia.
Shortly before the Asian tsunami (which he forsaw in his dreams, we're told), Pak Shohleh passed away suddenly. Now his wife, the warm and gracious Ibu Sholeh, cooks the soto. She starts every morning at 4am, simmering the beef in water for four hours before removing it, cutting it into small pieces, and frying it with palm sugar. The recipe for the soup, she says, is 'no secret, just shallots, garlic, white pepper, ginger, salt, and palm sugar.' For the savory sambal, she sautes fresh chilies with a bit of beef stock.
Daughter Siti runs the front of the house. Asked why Pak Sholeh's beef soto is so popular she replies, 'Thanks to God. People taste it, they love it, and they tell their friends.' Many clients, she says, are long-time regulars who've been eating soto made according to her father's recipe since he sold it door-to-door on the street.
Our last soto of the day was had at a shop specializing in a version from the Javanese town of Kudus. It's called, appropriately: Soto Kudus.
There's no nostalgic back story here; the shop was only opened in the last couple years. But Adzan claims it serves the best soto Kudus in Jogja, and for our purposes that's all that matters.
All in all it's a magnificent bowl of chicken broth with a strong cinammon presence; it's also, relative to the versions we downed before it, sweet. The usual suspects - bean sprouts, white and dark chicken shreds - were present, along with an appetizingly fragrant mound of fried garlic shards that scented the air around us as steam rose from the broth, around and through them. In spite of the fact that we were much too full for a third bowl of soto we slurped it right down. We would gladly return to Soto Kudus on emptier stomachs.
Call it an awakening of sorts; soto now occupies a prominent position on our Indonesian food radar.
Soto Kadipiro, Jalan Wates 33, Jogjakarta. 0274-618722.
Soto Pak Sholeh, Jalan Wiratama 84, Tegalrejo, Jogjakarta. 0274-560584.
Soto Kudus - sorry! Details to come.