Why is Soto called Soto?

Soto is a traditional Indonesian dish with broth that is made with different types of meat or offal (mostly from chicken or cow/ bull/ buffalo) and vegetables, served with normal rice or another type of rice e.g. Lontong. In some of non-Muslim-majority provinces like Bali and North Sulawesi, pork meat or belly can be used too. It is a well-known dish in Indonesia that based on the Establishment of The Creative Economy Agency in Indonesia (Badan Ekonomi Kreatif – Bekraf now as Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy), Soto has around 40 different types  spread all across Indonesia [1].

Each type of Soto is usually associated with their city of origin, which has a special ingredient/ spices/ addition that makes it a special Soto from that region, for example Soto Padang which uses a special meat called dendeng*  since Padang is famous for it.

In Indonesia itself, it has undergone a lot of transformation, from the original form of Soto as a dish to Soto as a variant of instant cuisine or as an instant seasoning. Since Soto always uses a lot of spices to make the broth rich in taste, the existence of instant seasoning is welcomed by a lot of Soto lovers all around the world, including most Indonesian who lives overseas.

If we trace it backward, before Soto is enjoyed by internationals, before it is loved by Indonesian, what is the origin of Soto? Why Soto is…Soto?

Why Soto is called Soto: Name origin

Most articles mentioned that Soto is a dish that originated in China. However, some articles claim that the name ‘Soto’ is indeed based on a Chinese dish. However, the main question is why Soto is called Soto**?

For many centuries, a lot of Chinese people came to the archipelago (before it was Indonesia) and many processes of culture trading and sharing happened. Their long-term stay resulted also in intermarriages with locals that eventually created some assimilation of cultures between both ethnics which is known as peranakan culture.

Chinese influence on current Indonesian cuisine has been mentioned in a lot of articles and study, including from the book of Lombard (2005) [2], Nusa Jawa: Silang Budaya. Vol. 2, mentioned that the origin of Soto is a Chinese dish called 草肚 (Cǎo dù) which means ‘grass belly’ that can be interpreted as a part of cow/bull/buffalo’s belly that is used for digesting grass (Rumen). However, Budiyanto and Wardhani (2013) [3] on their research of finding the traces of acculturation and assimilation between Chinese and Javanese culinary with the title of “Menyantap Soto Melacak Jao To Merekonstruksi (Ulang) Jejak Hibriditas Budaya Kuliner Cina dan Jawa”, stated that it is most likely that the name ‘Soto’ came from Chinese dish 猪肚汤 (Zhū dù tang) which is a pork belly soup.

Due to most of the peranakan culture (the Soto culinary business pioneer and consumer) make a ‘pun’ of Zhū dù (pork belly) that eventually leads to the euphemism of that word into Cǎo dù, it then transformed into the name ‘Soto’ based on how the local people heard the Chinese word. It is well-known as ‘Soto’ ever since.

Therefore, the name Soto is emphasized on the soup which uses 4-legs animals’ belly as the main ingredient. Budiyanto and Wardhani (2013)[3] assumed that the main reason Zhū dù tang was used as a reference of Soto is that both used various spices for its broth that makes it rich in flavor. The authors also highlighted that Soto as a dish itself is not ‘necessarily’ originated from the Chinese dish, Zhū dù tang, but the name was most likely based on that dish.
This name transformation from Zhū dù tang to Cǎo dù, is probably due to many local people at that time had embraced Islam, the term of using cattle/buffalo’s belly is more accepted than using pork.

Some devout Muslims refuse Chinese food because there is a risk that the cooked meat and the oil used there come from pork,” Lombard writes in his book [2].

Footnote:

*Dendeng is a thin-sliced meat, mixed with sugar and spices, preserved and then dried by frying it. It is similar with beef jerky in terms of visual.

**Soto has a lot of variation even in Indonesia itself. In most places it is called Soto with different additions based on the region where it comes from, but specifically in Makassar City in the island of Sulawesi, it is called Coto Makassar rather than Soto Makassar.

References:

[1] https://banjarmasin.tribunnews.com/2017/06/08/ada-40-jenis-soto-di-indonesia-lalu-apa-bedanya-dengan-soto-lamongan

[2] Lombard, Denys. 2005. Nusa Jawa: Silang Budaya. Vol. 2. Jakarta: Gramedia.

[3] Budiyanto, A., & Wardhani, I. K. (2013). Menyantap Soto Melacak Jao To: Merekonstruksi (Ulang) Jejak Hibriditas Budaya Kuliner Cina dan Jawa. Chinese – Indonesians: Their Lives and Identities (pp. 153-166). Surabaya: Petra Christian University.