The Story of Indonesian Soto: Now and Then

Contributor: A.S. Suryanto (Outside Java), FKM (Outside Java), Monica Sidarta (Papua), R.H (Java)

Java

Soto is one of the Indonesian culinary icons that are easily found in almost every region in Indonesia in many different forms. Soto is chosen as one of Indonesia’s culinary icons and is usually presented as a part of diplomacy, both International and National diplomacy. Soto can be said as the illustration of the Indonesian concept of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) in Indonesian food.

Soto is one of Indonesia’s culinary categories that includes soupy dishes made from meat or vegetable broth and contains shredded meat or chicken, vermicelli, and bean sprouts, among other ingredients. It is usually served with rice or rice cake. One of the examples is Soto Madura.

The development of Soto in Indonesia was majority influenced by the distribution of meat production (especially beef) and its price.

This happened because of the Chinese people who love to eat beef as a food ingredient, even though in Indonesia at that time, beef was not considered as good food by some people.

The development of Soto in Java started from Central Java and East Java, due to the cheap price of beef. According to some research, Semarang and Surabaya had cheaper prices of beef than other regions in Java. Semarang was identified as the center of the development of Soto in the 19th century because Semarang had a strategic location to become a meat production area at a low price.

However, the development of Soto in the 19th and 20th centuries actually cannot be known for certain, because a Soto recipe could not be found within cookbooks that were published in Semarang. In the book Oost Indisch Kookboek (East Indies Cookbook) and Groot Nieuw Volledig Indisch Kookboek (New and Most Complete Indies Cookbook), there is no recipe for Soto.

But, according to past research, it was stated that “Native Javanese often make broth with the name Soto”. It was also stated that the recipe of Soto was spread exclusively by direct demonstration, or by word-of-mouth transmission, or by mediumship. Therefore, Soto was a food that was well-known by native Javanese people and had spread to the national scale. 

Nowadays, Soto can be found easily throughout Indonesia, especially in Java. There are 61 varieties (81.33% of the total variance of Soto in Indonesia) that were found in Java. The development of variant Soto was influenced by the creativity of local people and the availability of natural ingredients, such as ginger, scallion, galangal, etc. We can see the variety of spices in Indonesia in 2019 from the following figure.

Figure 2. Variations of spices in Indonesia (Source: Ministry of Agriculture Republic of Indonesia (https://aplikasi2.pertanian.go.id))

Even though there are a lot of varieties of Soto in Java, the taste is most likely similar because of the similarity of spices. as we can see from the following figure.

Figure 3. Varieties of Soto Regarding Spices (Source: id.wikibooks.org/wiki/Resep)

Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi

Even though there are not as many as in Java, a lot of variations of Soto also had grown in several islands like Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi. These Soto were still influenced by Chinese cuisine and also by Indian spices. Therefore, it tastes pretty different compared to Soto in Java, although sometimes the appearance looks similar. 

Unlike Soto in Java where the spices used for different Soto are usually similar, Soto in Sumatra Island is more diverse in terms of spices used to make it (e.g. Soto Padang which uses nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, etc. and Soto Medan which uses coconut milk, turmeric, cumin, etc.). 

In addition, the origin of Soto in Java is usually more documented in history, however, there is almost no track of Soto history in Sumatera. Nonetheless, the establishment and spread of Soto in Sumatera Island is highly possible due to the trading activities through the Silk Road. 

Since around the 5th century AD, Indonesia has been one of the checkpoints or ‘gateway’ that connects the sea trade routes of India and China. The exact location of this ‘gateway’ is the Straits of Malacca, especially the cities around the Indonesian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. 

During that time, spices are one of the most important commodities to be traded. It was a really important product and the demand for it was high, especially in parts of Europe. This way, Indonesia – especially Sumatra Island exposure to spices from the other region is increasing.

Figure 4. The Silk Roads Across the Globe (Source: https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/about-silk-roads)

The crowded shipping routes led to the emergence of important ports around the Malacca Strait, namely Samudra Pasai, Malacca, and North Sumatra (formerly China City). The condition of the people along the Malacca Strait began to be prosperous and exposed in various ways, including socio-economic conditions and external cultural influences.

Gischa, 2020

Thus, it is most likely that the differences of Soto in Sumatera Island are due to a lot of cultural exposure from another region, including another island in Indonesia during that time. Since Soto as a dish itself is believed to originate from either China or India and spreading in Java (See our last month articles!), Soto in Sumatra was perhaps established during this time. It can originate from China, India, or even brought by people in Java Island that visited this trading port in Sumatra. However, there is no strong evidence or clear explanation regarding the origin of Soto in Sumatra Island and it still leaves a big question mark that maybe can be answered in the future. 

Meanwhile, in Kalimantan (or Borneo), the most famous Soto from Kalimantan Island is Soto Banjar. It is rich and unique in flavor as the usage of cinnamon, star anise, and clove. However, the true history of how and when this type of Soto was invented is still unclear. The name of Soto Banjar was derived from a major tribe who has been living in South Kalimantan which is the Banjar tribe. However, it was said that the cuisine itself originated from Central Java. In the early 16th century, an army of the Demak Kingdom (one of the Islamic kingdoms in Central Java) arrived in South Kalimantan to assist the Banjar Kingdom. These people were supposedly the ones who brought Soto there. Moreover, due to several spices and culture acculturations, Soto Banjar tastes quite different from Soto in Central Java.

Moving to another island in Indonesia, which is the Sulawesi Island, Coto Makassar is the most popular Soto in that region. Regarding some sources, Coto Makassar has been recognized and consumed since the Somba Opu Era (around 1538) when the Gowa Kingdom was in its golden age. At that time, the royal guards ate this cuisine as breakfast before working on their duty. Coto Makassar was influenced by one of the Chinese culinary cultures called Sambal Tauco, which entered the land within the 16th century. Since then, a bowl of Coto Makassar has always served with this Sambal Tauco as a side dish.

Papua

Soto is known as a traditional cuisine from Indonesia but it can’t be found easily in Papua Island which is one of the biggest islands in Indonesia. Different from other parts of Indonesia, the development of Soto does not occur significantly in Papua. There are several plausible reasons which relate to the topography and the climate in Papua. 

The topography of Papua Island is varied which are consisted of low valleys and high mountains. Moreover, there is approximately 30% of the total land that is inhabitable by humans because it consists of steep hills, swamps, and protected forests. Based on this condition, the topology of Papua island is difficult to cultivate corps that produce ingredients for Soto, for instance, garlic. Thus, it requires other parts of Indonesia to supply ingredients for making Soto which cost times and limited quantity that can be shipped.

The Climate of Papua also contributes to the hindrance of Soto Development in Papua. The rainfall variation in Papua is between 45 and 255 mm per year. The average number of rainy days varies between 148 and 175 rainy days per year. The average temperature is between  29 ° C and 31.8 ° C.

The average humidity varies between 79% – 81% in urban and suburban areas. Based on that data, it shows that Papua has a sharp difference solely in one Island. Moreover, rainy season and dry season are irregular to occur in a year. This condition is difficult for people to plant and cultivate crops. It proves by the following figure. The figure shows the land used in Papua which is categorized into 8 main activities. The biggest land used in Papua is the industrial forest area and a small area for crops. 

Based on this condition, not only Soto, but some Indonesian cuisine can not be developed in Papua because of the geographic condition of Papua. However, the other Indonesian Cuisine is developed in Papua by using the crops that grow in Papua Island, for instance, Papeda. The crops that grow in Papua are Staples include starchy vegetables (wild sago, breadfruit, yams, taro, sweet potatoes, and rice) complemented by wild greens, several varieties of bananas, and coconuts, mango, and other fruits. Besides crops, Papua is known for its domestication of animals and hunting provides fowl, pork, and meat from birds, marsupials, turtles, and cassowaries. And, its riveline and coastal areas, they produce fish and shellfish that also enrich Indonesian Cuisine.

References :

Java

  • Ary Budiyanto, I. K. W. (n.d.). Menyantap Soto Melacak Jao To Merekonstruksi (Ulang) Jejak Hibriditas Budaya Kuliner Cina dan Jawa.Yudhistira, B., & Fatmawati, A. (2020). Diversity of Indonesian Soto. Journal of Ethnic Foods, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s42779-020-00067-z

Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Sumatera

Papua