Gastropology 101

The Authoritative Soto

by Nadge Ariffin Photography Riz Ainuddin on Fri, January 02, 2009

Soto, a simple chicken broth with either cubed rice and noodles comes in all kinds of forms and recipes. One of the best soto dishes in the region hails from exotic Makassar. Although over there it's called cotto. But how did it get it's name? Read on...

Soto was once a royal dish served in the palace

Soto here has nothing to do with satay, that other popular dish in the Malay-Indonesian world, despite sharing the same consonants and differing only in the vowels. Indeed the two foods are as different as night and day.

Neither has it any connection with Japan, despite ‘soto’s Japanese-like sound which in that language means ‘outside’ or when capitalized (S?t?) is a branch of 13th century Zen Buddhism, although the S?t? Zen monks and followers would surely enjoy this soupy namesake dish.

Finally, banish any thought this food may be connected to Hernando de Soto, the (to the Spanish) heroic and (to the Native Americans) brutal 16th century conquistador who was an expert at cruelly extorting native North American villages for their captured chiefs. It’s probably fortunate he never set foot here in Southeast Asia, where no-one would want to serve him his namesake.

No, this soto is simply said to mean ‘soup’ and is a delightful range of soupy dishes of usually spiced chicken broth (hence the common moniker soto ayam) served with either nasi himpit / ketupat (rice cubes) or mee (noodles) and added condiments. It is found in a myriad of forms and recipes throughout the great Nusantara or Malay Archipelago, especially Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Indeed soto probably has the most diverse range of differences between preparations of any single related dish type in the Malay-speaking world.

In Malaysia and Singapore soto has a certain expected clear-soup look and mixed spicy taste with rice cubes that is a ‘standard’, but in Indonesia each region or district or town has its own distinct local form: and in big cities, each bowl of soto may be unique to specific streets or even particular cooks!

Just to name a few types, there are soto Bandung, soto Banjarmasin, soto Banten, soto kuning Bogor, soto babat Tasikmalaya, soto Kudus, soto Lamongan, soto Madura, soto Medan, soto Padang, soto kikil Surabaya ad infinitum.

This diversity should not be surprising. Being a soup, just about anything can go in and make it distinct. Differences also include the mix of soup spices and flavourings, whether some santan (coconut milk) is added, type of meats or meat parts and complementary plop-ins such as the popular begedil or bergedil ball of mashed potato with minced meat. (For the record, bergedil most likely comes from the similar Indian paargadill.)

Some differences are historic: soto tangkar Betawi of old Jakarta, for example, is a boney soup soto that dates from the difficult colonial days, when exploitative Dutch policies such as cultuurstelsel (heavily taxed forced planting culture) caused a lot of poverty and deprivation, until even bare bones were re-boiled in the local soto.

What is also basically soto is sometimes called by many other names, some sounding related and some not. In Malaysia and Singapore, being smaller and more unified entities, any possible other names are long gone or submerged under soto. But in Indonesia or parts thereof, it also goes by sauto, nyoto, tauto (as in tauto Pekalongan), coto or cotto as in Makassar or Mangkasara’ and even sroto as it is called in Sukaraja and Banyumas, Java.

What is true though is that its basic form is a rather easy dish to prepare and since anything goes in it, has become an egalitarian food that can be found from top restaurants down to warung or stalls in just about every street in the archipelago. It has long been a very affordable kind of fast food, hence its ‘common man’ popularity.

But what is its origin? No doubt soupy cooking is universal and every culture has soup dishes where every edible thing would have been thrown in. But the name ‘soto’?

It was a charming old lady serving a luxurious bowl of soto containing just about every condiment but her pedigreed cat who gave a clue, saying “soto asal dulu makanan raja-raja” (“soto originally used to be the food of kings”). How could an egalitarian dish found on many street corners be from a royal dish?

As usual, language is one source to look at and in particular the form sroto may be the key to this makanan raja.

The Indian term Raja for ‘King’ only became widely used in the Malay-speaking world from about the 15th century. Before that only linguistic historians know that the kingly term was Ratu or Rato. Indeed the Sultan of Melaka was also called Ratu Melaka, and the term is still used by the Polynesian and Melanesian cousins of the Malay people, for example in today’s Fiji. With strong Indian influence in Southeast Asia, Raja became King and Ratu went sideways to mean ‘Queen’.

Therefore we would be speaking of before the 15th century when the Malay royal term for kingly food is santapan ratu. We’re thus getting closer to an approximation of the sound of seratu and hence sroto, but that’s not close enough, and the context of its evolution is still missing. There is a parallel where the term kraton (royal palace) comes from the word keratuan (ke-ratu-an).

For this etymology we need to go deep into the isolated villages where older folk still remember stories of oral traditions passed down from ancient generations. And a royal culinary story unfolds. It begins, “Masa dulu-dulu…”

Once upon a time, there was a good king. One day he fell ill and lame, and had difficulty eating. He needed something soupy and easy to chew but he did not like porridge. And so a chicken soup was prepared and rice added. But the rice grains made it messy to feed the weak king. Instead he asked for small cubes of rice ketupat to be put in instead. The individual cubes, softened by the hot soup made it much easier to feed than the messy rice grains in soup. In addition, ill people’s taste buds are numb, so a spicier concoction was made till the king could taste the spiciness with the rice cubes.

Thus was born this new dish of rice cubes in chicken broth of mixed spices, specially ‘fed to the king’, literally suap ratu until he recovered. The king liked it so much that thereafter, it was served frequently and spread to become popular with the people throughout the realm.

Suap ratu
when spoken fast becomes sroto (as it is still pronounced in central Java) but in all other places got simplified to just soto.