A common mistake of foreigners visiting Indonesia is to limit their knowledge of Indonesian cuisine to Nasi Goreng and Nasi Padang. Few will taste one of the dozens delicious soups that you can try everywhere, from classy Indonesian restaurants to popular food courts.
Indonesian soups are typically made from some of these ingredients: turmeric, garlic, lemongrass, onions, potatoes, coriander, ginger, galangal, tomatoes and of course, coconut milk. Chicken is the most common type of meat, followed by beef, mutton and fish. Pork soups are very rare outside of Bali.
Sop or Soto?
It seems that even Indonesians are not so sure about the difference between "soto" and "sop". Some friends told me that "sop" are clear soups while "soto" are mixed with coconut milk. Wikipedia tells a different story: It says that traditional soups are called "soto" while modern, western-inspired ones are called "soup". If you know the difference, please help me by commenting below.
If you don't like coconut milk, you can ask the cook not to use any by saying "Jangan pakai santan". Alternatively, you can request your soup to be "bening" (clear).
I have just spent the last 3 weeks trying every possible "Soto" and "Sop" that I could find in Jakarta. That's about 40 to 50 soups. I noticed that the same soup will almost always be cooked in a different manner. Naturally, some venues are better than others so I give my some good restaurant recommendation for each type of soups.
Sop Konro Makassar
Though the Coto Makassar is more famous, I prefer the Sop Konro. It is a thick, flavorful soup with a big piece of beef rib in it. It is made using keluwak which gives it a black color (similar to that of rawon).
You can try it in Daeng Tata or in Sop Konro Karebosi (Kelapa Gading). If the taste is too strong, you can balance it using lime juice.
Originally from Jakarta, the Soto Betawi is similar to a few other soups that are cooked in a coconut milk broth (for instance the Soto Ayam). Just before serving, you will add green onions, boiled potatoes and fresh tomatoes. It is usually made with beef offals.
You can try in in Soto Jakarta Asen (Jalan Mangga Besar 1) or in Soto Roxy H. Darwasa (one of the oldest restaurants in Jakarta).
Rawon is a popular black beef soup originally from Surabaya. It is similar with Coto and Sop Konro Makassar as it uses kelawak. It is normally served with rice and called Nasi Rawon.
The most famous place to eat rawon is Rawon Setan in Surabaya. If you cannot go there, you can also try Rawon Setan Mbak Endang on Jalan Mangga Besar Raya, not far from Exotis.
The sop buntut or "oxtail soup" is usually rather expensive, even if you eat it in the street. Apart from the beef, it may include carrots, potatoes, cloves, nutmeg and tomatoes.
I would recommend you to try Sop Buntut Mangga Besar on Jalan Mangga Besar 1 (yes I spend a lot of time in that area as you can see).
Soto Ayam is the most widely available Indonesian soup, and possibly the most delicious too. The broth is aromatic and spicy, with a yellowish tint. It contains shredded chicken, fresh tomatoes, potatoes, turmeric, herbs, small eggs, koya and onions. The Soto Kudus, Soto Medan and Soto Lamongan (see below) are similar.
Best restaurant to taste a Soto Ayam in Jakarta: Soto Ayam Ambengan Pak Sadi (multiple branches in Kelapa Gading, Thamrin, Senopati, etc).
The Sop Kambing is my absolute favourite. I can usually smell restaurants that serve it a mile away and I love to try its variations. Popular versions include the Sop Kaki Kambing (Mutton Leg Soup) or the Sop Kepala Kambing (Mutton Head Soup). It is very similar with the Sop Buntut.
My favourite venue for Sop Kambing: Kui Sen Restaurant in Jalan Gajah Mada.
The Soto Lamongan is a variation of the Soto Ayam. The main difference is that it is a clear soup, without any coconut milk used. It is named after Lamongan, a city in East Java.
There are not many restaurants serving Soto Lamongan. If you don't find it near from where you live, you can go to the street food stall "Soto Ayam Lamongan Cak Kumis" in Bintaro 9 Walk.
Empal Gentong is a spicy beef soup from Cirebon. It is made of beef tripes (intestines) cooked in a curry sauce with coconut milk.
The most famous place in Jakarta is certainly Kedai Empal Gentong Mang Darma Cirebon in Kebon Jeruk, West Jakarta.
Soto Daging Madura
There are actually several kinds of Soto Madura, with chicken or beef. The one I tried was a dark beef offal and meat soup. It is not my favourite as I find it less aromatic than other Indonesian soups.
I only had Soto Madura once in Tosoto, on Jalan Mangga Besar Raya. They have other branches all over the city as well.
The Soto Medan is a variation of the Soto Ayam, with a sweeter flavour. Another difference is that it contains potato croquettes called "perkedel". The one I had also had some noodles inside.
The best place to eat a Soto Medan in Jakarta is near Ancol in Soto Medan Pak Syamsuddin, Jalan Muara Karang Raya No. 17.
Soto Tangkar Iga Sapi
The Soto Tangkar Iga Sapi is similar to Soto Betawi except that the meat used is always beef ribs. It is popular mainly in Jakarta.The legendary Soto Tangkar Tanah Tinggi is the must-try restaurant for this soup. It has been around since 1938, an eternity in Jakarta (Jalan Tanah Tinggi III No. 54 Central Jakarta).
The Soto Kudus comes from the town of Kudus in Central Java. It is a clear broth soup, usually made from chicken or buffalo, served in a small ball in which rice can be added. Its particular taste comes from the heavy use of garlic, fresh and fried.
There are several good venues to eat Soto Kudus in Jakarta. One of the most delicious is Soto Kudus Blok M on Jalan Kh. Achmad Dahlan No. 36.
Photo source: I took all photos myself except for the Empal Gentong and the Soto Kudus. I will add new soups as I try them, especially fish soups (sop ikan). Please don't hesitate to comment below if I made a mistake in my writing or if I missed your favourite Indonesian soup.