Soto ayam in Yogyakarta is an aromatic breakfast soup found right across Indonesia’s archipelago. Fondly called the country’s ‘chicken noodle soup for the soul’ and sold from charming food carts, Yogyakarta’s soto ayam has a light broth that’s clear and fragrant.
I’d like to think that we went to Yogyakarta for Java‘s awe-inspiring archaeological sites, namely the colossal Buddhist stupa of Borobudur and monumental Hindu temples of Prambanan, and stayed for the street food. The reality was that our Indonesia trip was shorter than we normally would have liked and our footpath feasting forays, while wonderful, were all too few and brief, as delicious as they were.
We had spotted the words ‘SOTO AYAM’ – ‘chicken soup’; ‘ayam’ is chicken and ‘soto’ soup – on vintage wooden food carts all over Yogyakarta but it wasn’t until our last day in East Java’s old capital that we finally got to sample the fragrant, filling, Indonesian chicken noodle soup that is a beloved local street food specialty.
There are countless variations of soto ayam found right across Indonesia’s archipelago, and beyond in Malaysia and Singapore, but with a more subtle use of herbs and spices and without the ubiquitous coconut milk, Yogyakarta’s chicken noodle soup is lighter, healthier and more comforting than most.
Soto Ayam in Yogyakarta – Indonesia’s Chicken Noodle Soup for the Soul
We were on our way to see the Kraton, the Sultan’s Palace in Yogyakarta, when we stopped for our long-awaited breakfast of soto ayam, the famous Indonesian chicken noodle soup. It was at an antique wooden food cart parked beneath a black tarpaulin on a small paved square by the whitewashed palace walls.
The charming mobile cart had recently been re-painted bottle green with banana-yellow trim. Even the spokes on the cart’s narrow motorbike wheels had been carefully styled in the same colours. On the cart’s stainless steel bench and timber shelves were various vessels holding fresh soup ingredients – tomatoes, cabbages, stalks of celery leaves, and limes – in stencilled enamel bowls and plastic lime green dishes.
Yogyakarta’s quaint old mobile food carts are vintage verging on antique. There really needs to be a museum dedicated to these endearing things before they disappear. One of the oldest we spotted, at the Prawirotaman market near our first Yogyakarta hotel was dilapidated, dusty and rickety, covered in cobwebs, and with peeling paint, precariously balanced on wonky old bicycle wheels.
This particular soto ayam cart was in fine condition, obviously cared for by its owners for whom it must have been a source of pride. Even the rusted gas bottle matched the paint job (it was a dirty chartreuse), as did the plastic cutlery caddies and condiments bowls on the stainless steel tables (forest green and peppermint).
A plastic drinks cooler on the damp footpath (it was monsoon), which had clearly seen better days, was in tea rose, colour coordinating with the cotton candy pink rice cooker and large ‘SOTO AYAM’ lettering on white in the cart’s centre panel. A list of what else was on offer was painted naively in shades of orange, red and yellow on the adjoining glass window: MINUMAN, TEH, JERUK, COKLAT, SUSU, KOPI.
It therefore came as no surprise that the elegant old lady with taut skin and silver-grey hair pulled back tightly in a bun at the back of her head – sporting a dark chocolate, long-sleeved shirt with a peach-coloured bouquet pattern and matching long skirt – was the proprietor of 30 years. Her daughter-in-law wore a big, baggy, hot pink t-shirt.
The soto ayam had the finesse that you’d expect from its cook’s appearance. As is the custom, plastic trays of crispy deep-fried snacks had been set on the table to nibble on while we waited, including fried vegetable cakes, taro and two types of tempe, a rubbery fermented soy cake that the locals love.
And the soto ayam was a revelation. I had wanted to call it Indonesia’s ‘pho’, seeing the soup we sampled was essentially a chicken consommé with rice noodles. But in this case, the bowl was packed to the brim with bean thread noodles as well as vermicelli-style rice noodles, and the broth was laden with herbs and spices.
I later discovered one recipe that combines the clarified chicken soup with a freshly pounded paste of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shallots, turmeric, coriander and galangal – the same ingredients that go into Cambodia’s kroeungs (herb and spice pastes). I wondered whether the addition of coconut milk resulted in a sort of Javanese nom bahn chok, Cambodia’s favourite breakfast noodle dish, albeit with shredded pieces of chicken meat rather than river fish.
The garnishes and condiments of choice for soto ayam include a squeeze or three of lime juice, a sprinkle of deep-fried shallots, and a dollop of sambal soto, a spicy relish-like sauce of candlenuts, birds-eye and banana chillies, shallots, garlic, sugar, salt, and lime.
The Javanese and Khmer go way back, having traded together as far back as the first century AD under the pre-Angkor kingdom of Funan. Yes, there is a reason that Cambodians in the countryside wear Javanese batik sarongs. In the 8th century the Javanese invaded Funan, making the Khmer kingdom a vassal state of Java.
According to John Tully in A Short History of Cambodia, an Arab trader called Suleyman who visited Funan at the time wrote in his journal that the disgruntled Khmer king wanted the Javanese sultan’s head on a platter. Hearing of this, the Shailendra ruler dispatched troops who returned to Java with the Khmer king’s head! It wasn’t until the reign of Jayavarman II, who established the Khmer Empire on top of Mount Kulen by having a Brahmin priest anoint him ‘universal monarch’, that the Khmers threw off the Javanese yoke, according to Tully.
Incidentally, the scenes depicted in the exquisite bas reliefs that decorate the walls of 8th century Borobudur are from the royal court of the Shailendran dynasty. I suspect there is a long distance relationship between Indonesia’s soto ayam and Cambodia’s beloved breakfast soup nom banh chok. They’ve just grown apart over the centuries.
Like a lot of soup and noodle dishes across Southeast Asia, soto ayam was apparently once eaten exclusively for breakfast, but these days the beloved Indonesian chicken noodle soup can be enjoyed at any time of the day or night. When consumed as a family evening meal it’s typically placed in the centre of the table and everyone helps themselves to some, Southeast Asian sharing-style.
When Indonesians crave comfort food, no matter the time of day or night, it’s a bowl of soto ayam they seek out. And I don’t blame them. This could just become my chicken soup for the soul. Click through for Terence’s soto ayam recipe.
Read More on Indonesian Cuisine
The Food of Indonesia: Delicious Recipes from Bali, Java and the Spice Islands
by Heinz Von Holzen and Lother Arsana
Flavors of Indonesia: William Wongso’s Culinary Wonders
by William W. Wongso
We savoured our bowls of soto ayam as part of a bespoke trip focused on history, cuisine and culture with locally-owned Pamitran Tours, which we highly recommend. Email Charlotte on email@example.com for more details.