Spicy Indonesian Soup (Soto Ajam)
Read any good books lately? By books I mean cookbooks. As many of my friends know (and Paul can attest to), I am a bit of a collector when it comes to cookbooks. I seem to go through them the way the average run of the mill reader goes through novels. And to top it all off, (much to Paul’s chagrin) I can’t seem to part with them, so they have piled up over the years just a bit. Even when I am just thumbing through them and returning them to the shelf without running to the kitchen, I always consider the time well spent.
It was on a recent wet Monday while perusing some oldies but goodies that I became motivated to partake in another favorite rainy day activity, making soup. The cookbook that inspired me was “Asia’s Undiscovered Cuisine” by Rosemary Brissenden. It was written and published in 1970. I remember picking it up over 35 years ago when I first became interested in the food of Southeast Asia. At that time these cuisines were under the radar for me and cookbooks on the subject were few and far between. I remembered one recipe from this book that I made often, a spicy Indonesian chicken soup, Soto Ajam.
“Asia’s Undiscovered Cuisine” was one of those early cookbooks on the subject that was written by a westerner, for westerners. At the time it was much more challenging to find the necessary ingredients to cook this kind of food than it is today. In addition to that, the recipes had a lot of western substitutions and the occasional simplification. These days we are all a little more sophisticated and more familiar with items like fish sauce, tamarind, and galangal (AKA Laos root). It is also much easier to find them at the local supermarket, Asian market, or online. In my case, I usually already have them in my pantry or freezer. See how I am?
Putting it Together
The first time I made this soup, I stuck to the recipe precisely, and it was delicious. But looking at it the other day I knew that I would be making some adjustments, such as using fish sauce instead of soy sauce and using fresh galangal instead of dried. I was tempted to add a little turmeric and Kaffir leaf, but I am going to try that on the next round. I also added a soft-boiled egg to the finished soup, which made for much more than a pretty picture. It was perfect…runny egg porn…Instagram ready!
This soup is probably easier to put together when you have all day to do it. It isn’t hard, but it is a bit time consuming and requires lots of bowls and dishes. I usually make the broth the night before, or early in the morning, so it can go into the refrigerator to make removing the fat a little easier. You probably could make a pretty good ‘mock broth’ by just simmering the seasoning ingredients in some canned or frozen stock, but I have never tried it this way.
This soup is a meal in itself. As much as a rainy day calls for a bowl of soup, a bowl of spicy noodle soup is perfect at any time. Sadly, I have never been to Indonesia, and I can’t tell you what the proper etiquette is for serving a soto, but I am pretty sure it goes something like this:
You begin in the kitchen where the noodles, the fresh vegetables, and the chicken are ready to serve next to a pot of hot broth. Start with a bowl half full of cooked noodles. To that fresh cucumber, celery and green onions are added as well as some spicy crispy chicken. Finally, the bowl is filled with piping hot broth. The fun part comes at the table when everyone gets to finish off their soup as they like it with a variety of condiments. The mandatory condiments include fried shallots, fried garlic, fish sauce and/or soy sauce and wedges of lemon. Optional condiments might consist of sliced fresh green chill peppers in vinegar, fresh herbs such as Thai basil, mint or cilantro, siracha sauce, dried red pepper flakes or hot chili paste such as Sriracha, sambal oelek or sambal badjak. At some point you need to drop in a sliced soft-boiled egg, probably after the broth, and before the condiments.
Not only is this soup delicious, but also it’s fun getting everyone at the table involved in the process. I hope you like it as much as I do. Enjoy!
- 1 Chicken, disjointed
- 1 unpeeled yellow onion, quartered
- 5¼ inch slices of ginger, bruised
- 5¼ inch slices of fresh galangal, bruised
- 4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
- 1 stalk of lemon grass, cut into 2 inch pieces and bruised
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, lightly toasted
- 1½ teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 1½ teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoons kosher salt
- ⅛ cup fish sauce (substitute soy sauce)
- 2-3 fresh kaffir lime leaves (optional)
- 4 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- Fresh Chinese style noodles or udon, cooked and rinsed in cold water
- Chopped green onions
- Chopped celery, including leaves
- Chopped cucumber, unpeeled
- Crispy Chicken
- Soft cooked eggs* (see note) one per bowl (optional)
- Coarsely chopped fresh herbs such as cilantro, Thai basil, or mint
- Fried shallots** (see note)
- Fried garlic** (see note)
- Hot sauce, such as Sriracha, sambal badjak or sambal oelek
- Lemon wedges
- In a large stockpot, add the chicken and all the rest of the broth ingredients. Add water to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer partially covered until the chicken is tender, but not falling apart, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from heat. Remove the chicken and place in a separate bowl until cool. Once cool, strain the broth in a colander or sieve, and place in the refrigerator. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, carefully remove the all the meat, and cut into small bite-size pieces. Add the tamarind concentrate, I teaspoon of salt and three tablespoons of water to the chicken and toss lightly. Heat the coconut oil in a wok or fry pan, and stir-fry until the edges are brown and slightly crisp. Place in a bowl and set aside until ready to serve. When the soup is cooled, skim the fat from the top of the broth, and return the broth to the refrigerator until ready to serve.
- While the chicken is simmering, chop the celery, green onions, cucumber and put into separate bowls. If soft boiling eggs* (see note), boil the eggs and cool. Cook noodles and rinse, set aside in a separate bowl.
- To serve, have all the ingredients handy and the condiments on the table. Heat the broth until hot. To each bowl add the desired amount of noodles, followed by the desired about of chopped vegetables. Ladle the hot broth to cover, but leave room for garnishes. If adding egg, peel and slice soft cooked egg then add to bowl. Guests will all finish the soup at the table, by adding the desired garnishes.