Soto Ayam

During the four years Victoria Hutton lived in Jakarta, she fell in love with the fresh, pungent flavours of Indonesian food. With an abiding interest in cooking, she decided to explore the cuisine and write a book, now in the planning stages, for non-Indonesians. One of her favourite dishes is Soto Ayam, the popular chicken noodle soup served with many garnishes. It makes a wonderful family dinner as everyone chooses their own add-ins.

The aromatic spice paste in this dish is one of the hallmarks of Indonesian cooking. It used to be a back-breaking chore to pound the chilies and other spices into a paste, but nowadays a blender or food processor does the job. The turmeric in the paste gives the soup a lovely yellow hue. Fresh turmeric, a perennial plant of the ginger family, is available in Asian stores. If you can’t find it, the dried version works well.

Fried shallots are a popular garnish for many dishes in Indonesia. Shallots have much less water than larger onions, so they fry up crisp without the addition of flour. They can be made ahead of time and stored in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

Preparation time: 2 hours
Servings: 6

Crispy fried shallots:

3/4 cup vegetable oil

1 1/2 cups thinly sliced shallots

Spice paste:

1 stalk lemongrass

1/3 cup coarsely chopped garlic

1 cup coarsely chopped shallots

1/4 cup peeled and coarsely chopped ginger

2 tbsp coarsely chopped fresh turmeric, or 1 tsp ground turmeric

2 kaffir lime leaves

1 tsp salt

1 tsp peppercorns

1 tsp sugar

2 tbsp vegetable oil

Broth:

1 3 1/2-4 lb (1.5-2 kg) chicken, quartered

12 cups water

Accompaniments:

2 oz (60 g) cellophane noodles, soaked in hot water to soften, then cut into 4-inch lengths

6 hard-boiled eggs, quartered

1 cup fresh bean sprouts

2 cups steamed white rice

1/2 cup chopped cilantro or celery leaves

Garnish:

1/2 cup finely chopped green onions

Lime wedges

1/4 cup store-bought sambal

Heat the oil for the shallots in a pot or wok until a drop of water sizzles immediately in it. Fry the shallots in batches if needed, stirring constantly for 4 to 5 minutes or until crisp and lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Cool.

Discard outer leaves of lemongrass. Cut off stalks, leaving about 3 inches from the base. Bash the pieces with the handle of a knife, then finely chop. This should measure about 1/4 cup. Prepare spice paste by placing lemongrass and next eight ingredients (except oil) in a blender and processing until smooth. Add a small amount of water if needed to help blend.

Heat 2 tbsp oil in a saucepan over low heat. Stir-fry paste until fragrant, about 4 minutes. Cool slightly. Reserve 2 tbsp of spice paste and wrap the remainder in a piece of cheesecloth. Place this spice paste bundle into a pot with chicken and water. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer, skimming as necessary, until the chicken is cooked through, approximately 45 minutes.

Remove chicken and cool, discarding the skin. Shred the meat and reserve. Return bones to pot and simmer, uncovered, for another 45 minutes or until flavourful. Strain the broth, discarding spice bag and bones. Cool if not serving immediately.

Stir reserved spice paste into shredded chicken.

To serve, return the chicken to the broth and reheat. Taste for seasoning.

Arrange accompaniments family-style in the centre of the table. Add accompaniments of your choice to your soup bowl and ladle broth and chicken over. Garnish with fried shallots, green onions, a squeeze of lime and a dash or two of sambal to taste.