I think the origins of Soto is Indonesia, and I personally love how the word is pronounced in the Indonesian language, the vowel sound coming from deep in the throat. I can’t say it properly myself, to be frank. I say it the way Malays do, just simply from the mouth as it were, no deep O sound. When I was a teenager this was one of the first major meals I attempted to cook for myself, in a tiny pot with the proportions that I visualised my mother use, which of course was a mistake. My mother always cooked for a family of six. This does not fit into a one-quart saucepan.
Between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, as always, you’d find different variations of this soup and even served with different carb variations. If you ask at a stall for just ‘soto’ you’ll get the soup served with cubed, pressed rice called lontong. If you say, ‘mee soto’ you’ll have the soup served with yellow noodles (what Westerners might call egg noodles, but in Singapore, egg noodles is something entirely different, usually served in Chinese establishments with wontons). If you prefer rice vermicelli instead of yellow noodles, ask for ‘bee hoon soto’. Please don’t say rice noodle soto, you’ll get very funny looks, or if you order at the famous Adam Road Hawker Soto stall, you’ll probably be told to buzz off entirely. In parts of Indonesia, mee soto might be served with what is called jelly noodles in the west, and in Malay what is called su’un (pronounced soo-oohn), made from mung beans if I’m not mistaken.
My mother would conspiratorially relate to me that the secret for deep and complex soto soup is the addition of coconut milk. Bringing the soup stock to a rolling boil allows the milk to split, and lose its creaminess, so you can’t tell just by looking that it exists in the pot. But you can taste something there. And it tastes good.
Years later my husband and I sat round the kitchen table of a friend’s family home for lunch where inevitably the conversation turned to recipes and cooking. Our friend’s mother had made soto for lunch (amongst a great many other dishes as is typical of Malay family gatherings), and she is a brilliant cook; she was relating to her nephew’s wife how the Javanese in Singapore would usually add santan to the soto during the cooking process, which she did as well even though she isn’t Javanese. I listened quietly with interest, nodding my head in agreement with the knowledge that yes, we Javanese put coconut milk in our soto, but I didn’t know you guys knew that! Oh well, not much of a secret then. (Some time before this I had made soto with my husband watching and he thought I was crazy for adding coconut milk. He is not Javanese. Suffice to say I felt rather smug, glad that he was sitting there listening to this same conversation.)
I’m showing it to you here with yellow noodles, but I love it equally with rice vermicelli, which is what I would typically use when I’m abroad and too lazy to make yellow noodles from scratch. I’ve also made an enormous amount, which is great for potlucks, but otherwise you can always freeze the broth for another day of deliciousness. Bean sprouts and bergedel are optional and considered the full works, but if you don’t have them, the dish is still good without them. No. I take that back, at least have bergedel, I cannot imagine life without bergedel. Also, don’t forgot the sambal kicap, the chilli and soy sauce. I will make a post for the sambal and insert the link soon. Not to worry, if you have a stick blender or grinder of some kind, sambal’s done in 5 minutes.