Vegan soto ayam, Indonesian comfort food

In a very generic sense, consider soto ayam (say: “SO-tow AYE-am”) an Indonesian chicken noodle soup. But better than the “American” version. And vegan. And no-added oil. And (shh) less complex to make than Vietnamese pho.

Of course, since my version has no chicken, you could call it soto mie (i.e. noodle soup; say: “SO-tow MEE-eh”) but with the flavors usually found in soto ayam. Okay, never mind, I’ll just call it vegan soto ayam.

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I grew up eating this soup from a packet and had a hankering for it a month or so ago. I have some of the same brand Indofood packets that I could use to make it again…but after reading the ingredients on the back (oil, shrimp paste, seasoning enhancers, etc), I decided I could figure it out myself and make my own version. Again, it might not be exactly the same as what an Indonesian in Indonesia may do, but I was very pleased at how much it reminded me of the versions I had during my childhood!

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In my no-added-oil and vegan version, the soup base (aka “bumbu“) is flavored by a fresh paste of ginger, galangal, onion, lots of garlic, with turmeric for color, and coriander and fresh black pepper. Then you sauté it with kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass and this amazing scent fills your kitchen, your household. After that, you can have it as a clear broth or, if you’re feeling indulgent, replace some of this with coconut milk. Instead of chicken, I actually use chickpeas (store brand chickpeas tend to have a lot of harder ones in it). While there are many different ways soto ayam is served that is based on region, I grew up eating this dish with sliced boiled eggs and krupuk (fried tapioca “crackers”). Instead I replaced these items with many other fresh condiments and, if you want to live on the edge, plain potato chips. (Trust me on the latter.) Lastly, add a little sour element with a squeeze of lime!

The hardest ingredients to get in a rural area are the galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass. If you can’t find the galangal, the ginger alone will work good enough (especially if you’ve never had this dish before — you probably won’t know the difference). The kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass are crucial, in my opinion!  Don’t ever think about leaving them out.

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Vegan Soto Ayam, Indonesian “Chicken” Noodle Soup

Serves 4 in very large bowls, otherwise 6 satisfying servings

INGREDIENTS:

Bumbu/Spice Paste:

  • 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and coarsely sectioned
  • 1 thumb-sized piece of galangal, peeled and coarsely sectioned (OR 1 teaspoon powder)
  • Half of a medium sized onion (see notes)
  • 5-10 garlic cloves (roughly 1/3 cup), peeled and roughly smashed
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander (or similar amount of seeds, crushed and ground)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Soup Base:

  • 1-2 lemongrass stalks, cut on the bias in 2-3″ long sections
  • 4-6 kaffir lime leaves
  • Oil as needed (optional)
  • 8-10 cups of water (or water + vegetable broth seasoning)
    • If you’re feeling indulgent, you can replace up to half of this with canned coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice, add more to taste after this (rebalance it with more salt if needed)

Accompaniments: (* = key items, in my opinion)

  • Glass rice or bean noodles (aka vermicelli), cooked*
  • Chickpeas*
  • Bean sprouts (an ingredient I grew up eating this with but it’s difficult to find)
  • Bok choy, cleaned and sliced
  • Mushrooms, tofu, tempeh, seitan
  • Green, red, or Napa cabbage, thinly shredded* (at least one!)
  • Celery, thinly sliced*
  • Green onion, chopped*
  • Plain potato chips*
  • Lime wedges
  • Bawang goreng (fried shallots)
  • Sriracha or Sambal Oelek (or similar non-sweet asian chili sauce)

DIRECTIONS:

Add all the bumbu/spice paste ingredients to a food processor or blender and add a splash of water. Process until it becomes a somewhat runny paste, adding more water as needed.  Place the spice paste into the soup pot and add the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves (and optional oil); stir fry on medium-high to high heat with small splashes of water  as needed (for oil-free cooking) until the kaffir lime leaves change from their fresh and bright green to a “cooked” color.

Add the water/broth, sugar, and salt to the soup pot; let simmer for 10 minutes. Turn the heat to as low as possible and add the lime juice. Taste and add salt or more lime juice as needed. (Careful with the lime juice!) You can remove the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves (they’re not for eating) now or later after serving.

Place any chosen accompaniments in a bowl and add the hot soup broth to it. Top with further accompaniments as wanted. Don’t forget the hot sauce!

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Recipe Notes:

  • Try to get your hands on galangal (sometimes called Thai ginger). If not fresh, I’m pretty sure you can get away with powder if you can find it. If you can’t find any version of it though, it’ll still be tasty.
  • I think more of the traditional recipes call for shallots and I’ve used red onions as a substitute in the past. Once I used too much of the red onion and (since I don’t strain the broth like others may do) it turned the broth color a little grey. If you can, use a white or yellow onion for esthetics’ sake.
  • I used to use one whole onion, but with the amount of garlic used, you’re more likely to end up with, well, a lot of…flatulence. So! I changed the recipe to only use half of an onion and it still works well.
  • If you get your hands on a little fresh turmeric root, do it! I did this once with approximately an average person thumb-sized piece.
  • I don’t recall having this soup with coconut milk but I’ve seen it and can’t imagine it’d be bad. I’ve simply always had it with the clear broth and love it that way!
  • In addition to the obvious glass noodles and chickpeas, I try to aim for at minimum three fresh additives every time. Most recently, we made it with: napa cabbage, red cabbage, bean sprouts, and green onions!
  • If you can’t find those glass-like noodles, any kind of thin rice noodle will work.
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