Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
Java. The name smacks of exoticism. Of volcanoes carpeted in rainforest, of rice paddy that shines like green glass, of coffee beans so special they take only that name. I've always wanted to go--and suddenly there I was.
But I took an unusual route through the island, visiting seven cities in nine days. Most of my Java was seen through the window of a car, or on walks through sprawling villages that have made awkward transformations into cities.
Bogor, Jogjakarta, Solo, and Semarang flashed past; our only moments of solace were spent watching the morning sun reveal the ruins of Borobodur. (I was traveling with my wife, who was sent to audit a hotel chain there. And it felt a lot like work.)
Spending a few drowsy hours wandering around an alien place is not the best way to sample a country's culinary wonders. And Indonesia doesn't part with its edible secrets as easily as other places in Southeast Asia.
And that's probably why I left Java with a greater understanding of its food, but a just a loose handful of memorable eating experiences. I got sick, and eventually I got tired of Javanese food, but that's surely my fault. As this restaurant (warung) sign in Jakarta seems to warn (and as my friends there clearly explained to me) eating the street food can be Risky.
Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
Because of this, I found myself rolling around the back of a Toyota SUV, as it shot the gaps between logging trucks and reckless buses, with a stomach angrier than Indonesian traffic. Our driver, Hadi, smiled at me sweetly, as he laid on the horn, downshifted, and tested fate once again.
"Soto ayam," he said. I gravely nodded my head.
It was just the trick. Soto ayam, Java's ubiquitous chicken soup, is a dish that is balanced, fresh, and surprisingly delicate. It was a salve for struggling guts, both reminiscent of my own chicken soup that my mother taught me to make so many years ago, and one that was texturally new (It has the added crunch of sprouts, and of beef cracklings, on top). I ate mine by the growling roadside, as trucks piled high with tropical hardwood emerged from the forest, wheezing their way between Semarang and Solo.
My soup emerged from this smoky kitchen, all cauldrons and woodsmoke, with the yellow tint of fresh tumeric. There was only a suggestion of cumin and black pepper, a whisper of lemongrass and a pinch of coriander seed. Inside were bean sprouts, shredded chicken, and slices of tomato and carrot. It was topped with the toasty fried shallots, and a few flecks of coriander. And the subtle broth concealed a scoop of firm, just-steamed rice.
The soto's stock was richly concentrated from the bony, free-range birds you find in the mountains there. And the vegetables were cooked for only a few minutes, retaining their taste and firm texture. I squeezed tiny sections of lime, broke crunchy cracklings on top, and gingerly ate it.
It pulled me through, that gracious little bowl of chicken soup. And I realized that while places might well be different, stomachs in need of comfort generally aren't.
To make soto ayam, click here for a recipe by James Oseland, which appeared in the New York Times.