INDONESIA: Soto and National Identity. Don’t Call Me Sop!

INDONESIA: Soto and National Identity. Don’t Call Me Sop!

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In Indonesia, you’ll find two groups of soup dishes – soto and sop. There’s actually a third called sayur, but it’s considered more of a stew than a soup so we won’t get into it here.

Throughout Indonesia you’ll find many different variants of soto and sop dishes, with a clear distinction made between the two. They looked the same to an outsider like me but some soup-like dishes were clearly labeled “soto” and others “sop”. Why is that? And why the need to make that distinction between soups?

You’d think it has something to do with ingredients or dialect but the answer seems to go deeper than that. It may have something to do with national identity.

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Soto

WHAT IS SOTO?

Soto is a traditional Indonesian soup made with different types of meat and vegetables. It’s consumed throughout Indonesia in many forms, its myriad variations named after the region where it’s from or the primary ingredient used.

Soto is most often made with chicken or beef though other types of meat like mutton and buffalo can also be used. Because of its predominantly Muslim population, pork is rarely used except in non-Muslim-majority provinces like Bali and North Sulawesi.

Like many Asian soups, soto can be a full meal served with copious amounts of meat, rice, noodles, crackers, and egg.

WHAT IS SOP?

Googling the definition of sop is where things get interesting. According to Wikipedia, the only difference between soto and sop is that soto is a traditional Indonesian soup whereas sop is a soup with foreign influences. I don’t know how accurate that is because I can’t find other sources to back up that claim.

Even locals seem to be confused by the distinction. Some say sop refers to clear soups while soto contains coconut milk. One person claimed that soto is never made with pepper but many recipes seem to contradict that. In truth, no one seems to really know.

As is often the case with food, the true story of its history is lost over time. But if Wikipedia were to be believed, then the distinction as defined by influence makes for a much more interesting conversation.

What is the relationship between food and national identity? Are we truly defined by what we eat?

FOOD AND NATIONAL IDENTITY

Wikipedia’s definition of soto and sop raised questions I never before thought of asking. For instance, why is it so important for us to eat dishes that are “authentic”? Why do we get so protective when another culture tries to claim our food as their own? What is it about food that makes us so territorial?

Ren once published a Thai fusion recipe for Filipino sinigang that included coconut milk and readers were up in arms about it. “Why did you add coconut milk? What kind of sinigang is that?! That’s not sinigang. No one puts coconut milk!” Simmer down people. It’s just an ingredient she was experimenting with. Why all the emotion?

I used to think it was only because of taste but reading up on food and national identity, I realize now it’s about so much more than that.

For many of us, food isn’t just for sustenance. It isn’t just an indulgence. Like language, art, and music, it’s a symbol of our cultural heritage the distortion of which can threaten our national identity.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we assert our national identity through our food so to some people, coconut milk in sinigang isn’t just an ingredient. It’s a dilution of who we are.

Which brings me back to soto and sop. If it’s true that sop is indeed defined as Indonesian soup with foreign influences, then I can see the need for the distinction, especially when the conversation is about identity and cultural heritage. For a country like Indonesia that’s been under European influence for three-and-a-half centuries, having achieved their independence only in the last 75 years, then the time to assert their national identity is now.

TYPES OF SOTO

The reason for the distinction may be debatable, but one thing is clear – soto and sop are must-try dishes in Indonesia, each with a seemingly limitless number of variations. I’m not so sure about sop, but different types of soto are named after the region they’re from or the primary ingredient used to make them. Here are a few examples.

By Region

Soto Bandung is one of the most well-known variations of soto. It’s a clear beef soup from Bandung, the capital of West java province. It’s noted for its use of white radish and fried soy nuts which I believe is unique to the region.
Soto Bandung

Soto Banjar is from Banjarmasin, the capital of South Kalimantan province. It’s a type of chicken soup made with potato pancakes, rice cakes, and hard-boiled eggs.
Soto Banjar

PHOTO: “Soto Banjarmasin” by kuliner jogja, used under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom, removed watermark

If you’re visiting Jakarta, then you may want to try Soto Betawi. It’s a native Jakartan beef soup made with coconut milk or fresh cow’s milk.
Soto Betawi

PHOTO: “Gunawan Kartapranata [CC BY-SA 4.0] / Cropped, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

Soto Kediri is a type of chicken soup from Kediri Regency made with coconut milk.
Soto Kediri

PHOTO: “Midori [CC BY-SA 3.0] / Cropped, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

Soto Padang hails from West Sumatra province. It’s a type of beef soup made with potato fritters and rice vermicelli noodles.
Soto padang

PHOTO: “Midori [CC BY 3.0] / Cropped, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

Soto Pekalongan is a type of beef soup from Pekalongan City in West Java. It’s noted for its use of tauco which is a type of fermented soy bean paste.
Soto Pekalongan

PHOTO: “@orajoo [CC BY 2.0] / Cropped, rotated, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

As described, soto can sometimes be a full meal and this overflowing bowl of Soto Semarang is the perfect example of that. It’s a type of chicken soup made with candlenut, potato fritters, and fried tempe, and eaten with a side of sate kerang (cockles), tripe, and quail eggs.
Soto Semarang

PHOTO: “Gunawan Kartapranata [CC BY-SA 3.0] / Cropped, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

By Primary Ingredient

Simple and comforting soto ayam or chicken soup is perhaps the most famous type of soto. It’s the Indonesian equivalent of American chicken noodle soup.
Soto ayam

PHOTO: “Gunawan Kartapranata [CC BY-SA 4.0] / Cropped, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

Indonesia is predominantly Muslim so pork is rarely used, except in non-Muslim-majority provinces like Bali. Pictured below is a bowl of soto babi or pork soup.
Soto babi

PHOTO: “Gunawan Kartapranata [CC BY-SA 4.0] / Cropped, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

Popular in Java, soto ceker is a variation of soto ayam made with chicken feet.
Soto ceker

PHOTO: “Gunawan Kartapranata [CC BY-SA 4.0] / Cropped, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

Soto kaki refers to soto made with animal feet. It’s a Betawi dish commonly eaten in Jakarta. This bowl of soto kaki kambing is made with goat feet.
Soto kaki kambing

PHOTO: “Midori [CC BY-SA 3.0] / Cropped, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

Soto kaki mencos is made with cow’s foot tendon.
Soto kaki mencos

PHOTO: “Gunawan Kartapranata [CC BY-SA 3.0] / Cropped, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

This bowl straddles both categories. Soto mie refers to soup made with mie noodles. Soto mie Bogor is a type of soto mie from Bogor City in West Java province.
Soto mie bogor

PHOTO: “Gunawan Kartapranata [CC BY-SA 3.0] / Cropped, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

SOP BUNTUT

You’re probably wondering what sop looks like so pictured below is a delicious and hearty bowl of sop buntut from Dapur Dahapati in Bandung. Sop buntut is an oxtail soup in clear beef broth containing a mix of ingredients like potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, leeks, celery, and fried shallots.
Sop buntut

Nothing quite like a hefty hunk of oxtail and rice to kickstart your day. They sometimes grill the oxtail to give it a nice smokey flavor.
Sop buntut

FINAL THOUGHTS

To be honest, I have my doubts whether the Wikipedia definition is true. I can’t find anything to support its veracity and the very same Wikipedia entry seems to contradict itself. It makes that distinction at the top of the page but jump to the history section and you’ll find claims that soto may have Chinese, Arab, and Indian Muslim influences. Wouldn’t that make it sop by their own definition?

Much is lost in the oral tradition of food, especially when it involves colonialism and migration. It opens up a fascinating discussion about food and national identity and made me realize things I may have innately felt but was never consciously aware of. Thanks to the ambiguity between soto and sop, I am now.

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