Soto Ayam, The Lamongan Way of Life


Daftar Isi

The Evolution of Soto

Of the many regional specialties in Indonesia, soto ayam is one of the most popular. It’s sold everywhere, affordable, and loved by everyone, from children to the elderly.  

Along with rendang, soto ayam is a typical Indonesian food that is recognized worldwide as a delicacy. Not only for the taste of the archipelago but also for the taste of the world. Even the famous media, The New York Times, once published a recipe for soto ayam in its cooking section. 

Throughout the archipelago, there are many variants of soto ayam. One of the most popular is soto ayam Lamongan. This can at least be seen from the volume of searches on Google. In this search engine, “soto ayam Lamongan” and “soto ayam Lamongan recipe” are ranked first among all other types of chicken soto. 

Lamongan chicken soto stalls are also the most listed on Google Maps. This data illustrates how popular soto ayam Lamongan is in Indonesia. 

Among migrants from Lamongan Regency, selling soto is one of the favorite professions. There are many villages in Lamongan where the majority of their migrants sell soto ayam. 

Lamongan actually has many specialties. There are pecel lele, tahu campur (mixed tofu), tahu tek (tofu with shrimp paste), sego boran, wingko Babat, jumbrek. However, none of them have the popularity of soto ayam Lamongan. 

Behind its popularity as a people’s food, soto ayam Lamongan has a long history dating back to the Dutch East Indies era. Soto is a dish that combines various kitchen cultures, from Chinese, Dutch, Indian, Javanese, to Lamongan itself. 

Emerged in the Chinese Kitchen

The historical roots of soto cuisine are thought to have emerged in Chinese kitchens. According to historian Denys Lombard, in his book Nusa Jawa: Silang Budaya, the word soto comes from the Chinese Caudo (Jaoto) which literally means spice soup filled with offal. 

Soto was originally made by Chinese to utilize the offal of four-legged animals such as pigs or cows. Eating offal is a Chinese culinary culture. The Dutch find this culture disgusting because they consider offal to be dirty parts of animals, not worth eating. 

Pigs themselves were forbidden food for the Javanese, who had converted to Islam by then. In the hands of the Chinese, these discarded animal parts could still be utilized for food. 

This offal-style soup then evolved in many regions according to the socio-cultural and economic conditions of the local community. So in addition to soto babat (offal), there was beef soto, buffalo meat soto , and chicken soto. These soto varieties are popular in the northern coastal areas of Java, which are inhabited by Chinese immigrants and descent such as Surabaya, Semarang, Kudus, Pekalongan. 

According to Denys Lombard, Chinese peranakan-style soto became popular in the 19th century. Interestingly, recipe books published in the Dutch East Indies era did not include soto recipes. Take the famous recipe book, Groot Nieuw Volledig Oost-Indisch Kookboek

In this book, published in 1902, there is no soto recipe at all even though this book contains thousands of recipes for Dutch East Indies cuisine. Rawon, serundeng, lemper, brongkos, cendol dawet, kue semprong, serabi, kue lumpur, apem, bubur salak, pickled cucumber, various kinds of soup, laksa, bakmi, capcai, various kinds of satay, botok, skotel, pepes ikan peda, garang asem, perkedel, semur, dendeng, babi kecap, all are here but strangely soto does not exist. 

In fact, in the collection of photos from the Dutch East Indies now stored at Leiden University, there are quite a lot of archived photos and pictures of soto sellers in Java. This means that soto was deliberately not included in the Dutch recipe book. 

Padjadjaran University historian Fadly Rahman suspects this is because at that time soto was still synonymous with offal, which by Dutch standards was considered not suitable for consumption. In other words, Chinese peranakan-style soto had not yet evolved into Nusantara-style soto. 

During President Sukarno’s time, soto became an official palace dish. Bung Karno often served it to state guests. This is documented in the Palace kitchen recipe book at that time, namely Mustikarasa. This means that at that time soto had become a typical Indonesian food, no longer a Chinese peranakan specialty. 

Murdijati Gardjito, a food expert from Gadjah Mada University, said that throughout Indonesia there are now 75 variations of soto. Most of them, around 61 soto variants, are found in Java and Madura. The rest are spread across Sumatra, West Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi and Kalimantan.

The Lamongan Chicken Soto Wave

Chicken soto is actually everywhere. It is not unique to Lamongan. According to Murdijati Gardjito’s data, 52 percent of the archipelago’s soto types use chicken. Besides Lamongan, there are also chicken soto in Semarang, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Pekalongan, and many more. 

Chicken soto has become Lamongan’s culinary mascot because many Lamongan people migrate and sell chicken soto. They are the “Soto Ambassadors”. 

This is the same with Madurese meat soto. We know meat soto as a typical Madurese food because the sellers are predominantly Madurese. Madurese soto itself was originally chicken soto. We can see evidence of this in the book Mustikarasa. There are recipes for soto Madura and soto Pamekasan in this book. Both are chicken soto, not beef soto. 

The same explanation also applies to the chicken soto that many Lamongan people sell. Lamongan people started selling soto ayam a long time ago. According to Kompas, the first Lamongan chicken soto seller to come to Jakarta was Askari, a resident of Siman Village, Sekaran Subdistrict. 

He came to Jakarta in the first wave of migrants from Lamongan. At that time, soto ayam was sold on a pedestal and was not yet paired with pecel lele. Pecel lele is thought to have appeared in the late 1970s.

One of the oldest soto ayam Lamongan stalls that is still selling today is soto ayam Jaya Agung in Central Jakarta. This stall was started by Jali Suprapto, a migrant from Siman Village in 1963. He was the second wave of migrants to follow in Askari’s footsteps. 

Jali Suprato/Kompas

Although soto ayam Lamongan has been around for a long time in the capital city, the big wave of sellers only happened in the 1980s-1990s. Success stories of soto ayam sellers are usually told during Eid al-Fitr when migrants return home and stay in touch with relatives. 

Successful soto sellers can build a house or buy a motorcycle. When they return to Jakarta, they usually invite friends or relatives to sell soto in other areas in Jakarta. Little by little, eventually all areas in Jakarta and other big cities were penetrated by soto ayam Lamongan.

At that time, the term soto ayam Lamongan was not popular. The sellers simply called the dish “soto ayam”. Moreover, at that time, Lamongan Regency was not well known. Some sellers even called the dish “soto ayam Surabaya” to differentiate them from other soto. 

One example is Soto Ayam Pak Sadi. This soto is actually a typical Lamongan soto characterized by the use of koya. This legendary soto shop was started by a Lamongan migrant, Hasni Sadi, in the Ambengan area of Surabaya in 1971. 

Pak Sadi/

However, the name does not contain the word “Lamongan”. People know it better as soto ayam Ambengan Surabaya. In the 1980s, Pak Sadi opened a branch in Jakarta. Still, there is no word Lamongan although the soto is clearly typical of Lamongan.

In fact, many people think that the chicken soup that uses koya is Surabaya’s soto Ambengan. They think soto Ambengan is one of the sub-variants of soto in Surabaya when in fact it is Lamongan’s signature chicken soto. 

Soto Ambengan Pak Sadi. IG @ny.rempong

In Lamongan itself, soto ayam is an official dish during wedding receptions, circumcisions, pilgrimages, or celebrations. Lamongan people are used to cooking soto. Soto is preferred over other dishes such as rawon because chicken is cheaper than beef. 

In Jakarta, these chicken soto sellers certainly cook the Lamongan way. They don’t use coconut milk. The oil comes from chicken broth and cooking oil to sauté the spices. The characteristic of soto Lamongan is the addition of koya powder made from shrimp crackers.

Soto ayam cannot be said to be authentic to Lamongan. However, the Lamongan chicken soto that we know today is indeed a typical Lamongan soto. This soto is sold by Lamongan people, cooked with Lamongan-style, as they do during wedding receptions or celebrations. 

It’s like sambal, tempeh, or Indomie. Sambal is a typical Indonesian food even though chili is not native to Indonesia. Tempeh is an Indonesian specialty even though the soybeans are imported from US. Indomie is also an Indonesian specialty even though the noodles are originally Chinese and the wheat is imported from Canada. 

The distinctiveness of soto ayam Lamongan is not just an exaggerated claim. Since 2021, soto ayam Lamongan, along with sego boranan, has obtained a patent from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights (Kemenkumham) as Lamongan’s culinary treasure. 

Soto and The Art of Honoring Guests

The number of Lamongan chicken soto sellers in other cities is influenced by many factors, mainly economic. Many Lamongan people migrate to the city or even abroad because they find it difficult to make a living in the village.  

The population is increasing so that the area of rice fields for each person is getting smaller. Moreover, agriculture is strongly influenced by seasonal factors. In the rainy season, farmland is flooded. Meanwhile, in the dry season, irrigation sources are very limited. 

This condition is illustrated in a very popular expression in Lamongan, “Rendeng gak iso ndodhok, ketigo gak iso cewok“. This means that in the rainy season they cannot sit because of flooding, and in the dry season they cannot wash after defecating because there is no water. This mocking expression is a way for Lamongan people to laugh at the bitterness of their own lives. 

Lamongan people choose to sell soto ayam (chicken soup) not only because it is a profitable profession. There are other factors, one of which is cultural. We can see this for example in Dusun Kebontengah, Rejotengah Village, Deket Subdistrict. This hamlet is one of the “Soto Villages” because most of its residents sell Lamongan chicken soup. 

One of the reasons why they sell soto ayam is because they follow Buyut Bakal’s way of life. Buyut Bakal is their ancestor who was Sunan Giri’s cook during his lifetime. Buyut Bakal’s grave is still well-preserved and sacred by the villagers to this day. 

Lamongan’s culture has been familiar with chicken dishes since ancient times. For example, this can be seen clearly in Tlemang Village, Ngimbang Subdistrict. In this village, the Mendhak Sanggring rite is held every year. The rite, which is held every 24-27 Jumadil Awal, is performed by the people of Tlemang to commemorate the appointment of their ancestor, Raden Nurlali, by Sunan Prapen (grandson of Sunan Giri) as leader in this region. 

One of the typical dishes in this ritual is a soupy chicken dish whose entire cooking process is carried out by men. Indeed, this dish is not the Lamongan chicken soup we know today. However, this chicken soup dish is enough to emphasize that the Lamongan region has long made chicken soup as an official dish.

Mendak Sanggring/Jawa Pos

This culture has existed since the time of the Giri Sunanate, which was centered in Gresik in the 15th to 17th centuries. Long before the emergence of offal jauto recipes in Chinese kitchens in the 19th century. To this day, the soupy chicken dish (which later evolved into soto) is still an official dish to honor guests. Not only in Tlemang, Ngimbang, but also throughout Lamongan. 

Chinese Influence in Soto Ayam Lamongan

The Lamongan chicken soto we know today is a Lamongan specialty. However, the Chinese culinary influence can still be clearly seen in the recipe. There are at least five components that are typical of Chinese peranakan. Three of them are the main components, namely noodles, soy sauce, and koya.

Glass noodle (soun) 

The Indonesian people know how to make noodles from the Chinese. Soun is a characteristic of soto Lamongan, but it is not the main component of the recipe that determines the taste of soto. Its function is only as an addition. Soto with or without glass noodles does not taste different. 

Sweet soy sauce (kecap)

Soy sauce is also clearly of Chinese origin. The soy sauce used in the soto Lamongan recipe is a sweet soy sauce made from soybeans. 

Originally, what was called soy sauce (kôechiap) was a salty soy sauce (kecap asin). It later evolved into sweet soy sauce to suit the Indonesian palate. 

While soy sauce is also not the main component of a soto recipe, it is a very important ingredient as it determines the final flavor of the soto. Soto with and without soy sauce tastes very different. Soy sauce is usually provided separately like sambal so that people who eat soto can choose whether or not to use soy sauce. 


This is the most distinctive part of Lamongan chicken soto. Koya is made from shrimp crackers and fried garlic ground into powder. Koya is a Chinese term for powdered food. 

There are two kinds of koya that we recognize in Peranakan food. The first is kue koya, a powdered flour cake that is simply molded, not in the form of wet dough. The second is koya soybean powder, which is commonly added to lontong cap gomeh. 

In addition to the three kinds of koya above, there is also roasted coconut koya that is usually added to soto, as an alternative to shrimp crackers. All of the koya above have something in common: they are powdered. 

Koya is an important component of Lamongan chicken soto. More important than soy sauce. Without koya, soto ayam Lamongan already tastes good. With the addition of koya, the soto becomes more savory.

The initial use of koya was most likely to make use of leftover shrimp crackers. In Lamongan and surrounding areas, shrimp crackers are generally wide. It is served by placing it on a plate with rice and soto. 

It has a dual function. Apart from being a side dish, the wide crackers also cover the main dish. So if the sliced chicken is only a little, the dish still looks polite, not stingy. This is part of the art of honoring guests in a frugal way. Of course, not all hosts can entertain their guests with soto containing large amounts of sliced chicken. 

Wide crackers are troublesome because they have to be fried in a large wok with lots of oil. Even when they are fried, wide crackers are still troublesome because they break easily. 

Because of their wide size, shrimp crackers are usually put into large plastic bags. It is the same size as a sack of sugar. Until now, Lamongan villagers have referred to all types of large clear plastic as “kerupuk plastik”.

There are always two kerupuk plastics in the kitchen. One is for whole shrimp crackers. The other is for shrimp crackers that have been broken. Once broken, the crackers are no longer suitable for serving to guests and are only to be eaten by themselves. It is this condition that seems to have originally given birth to the koya of shrimp crackers, which turned out to make the soto even more savory. 

Now, of course, the koya in Lamongan soto ayam stalls is not made from prawn cracker crumbs but from whole prawn crackers. Many shrimp crackers are now small, not as wide as a plate.

Bean sprouts (taoge)

Taoge is not always present in the soto ayam Lamongan recipe sold at stalls in big cities. However, soto ayam in villages in Lamongan at celebrations generally still uses bean sprouts, in addition to shredded cabbage and rice noodles.

Most use small bean sprouts like those used for rawon. Some also use long bean sprouts. Bean sprouts are also a traditional component of the Chinese kitchen. It is said that Admiral Cheng Ho during his grand expedition always planted bean sprouts on the ship and made it a mandatory menu to maintain the health of the sailors. 

Chinese chives (kucai)

Until the 1980s, kucai leaves were still commonly grown in home gardens in Lamongan villages. The leaves are used like scallion to flavor dishes, including chicken soto. The use of chive leaves (kow choi) was originally also a Chinese kitchen custom. 


However, chives are now rarely available. Today’s Lamongan chicken soto recipes use chopped scallion. 

From the evidence above, it appears that the influence of Chinese traditions in soto recipes is indeed very dominant. It would not be an exaggeration to say that soto originated from a Peranakan Chinese kitchen.

The influence of Chinese culture in Lamongan is actually not that dominant. More influenced by Chinese culture is Tuban, the neighboring district. In Lamongan, the population of Chinese descendants is not that large. They are only concentrated in the town of Babat Subdistrict. 

The culinary heritage of Chinese peranakan in Lamongan is wingko. Until now, Wingko Babat Loe Lan Ing, which has been established since a century ago, is still an icon of Babat and Lamongan souvenirs. 

In Tuban, the Chinese population is quite large. Even in Tuban’s square there is the Kwan Sing Bio temple which is still used for prayers today. In terms of Chinese culinary heritage, Tuban is richer than Lamongan. 

In Tuban there is a legendary Cap Laron soy sauce factory that has been established since 1945 and is still famous today. Tuban is also famous for producing delicious shrimp crackers and shrimp paste. These businesses are mostly run by people of Chinese descent.

Tuban is more populated by people of Chinese descent because it is located right on the coast which became a harbor in the past, where immigrants from China landed and then settled. The Lamongan kitchen tradition seems to have been influenced by the Chinese kitchen tradition indirectly through Tuban. 

Indian and Dutch Influences 

One of the most important components of Lamongan chicken soto recipe is turmeric. Turmeric is what gives soto ayam Lamongan its golden yellow color, fragrant smell, and lingering taste. The use of turmeric in cooking is a local Javanese tradition that was originally thought to be influenced by Indian traditions. 

The Dutch culinary influence can still be seen in the use of cabbage and celery. These two ingredients are components commonly used by the Dutch to make soup. 

Cabbage slices are typical of Lamongan soto but are not the main component that determines the flavor. It only functions as an addition, just like rice noodles. Whether you use cabbage or not, the flavor of Lamongan soto is no different. 

Actually, in the soto recipe there is also another Lamongan tradition outside of koya, which is the addition of milkfish as a flavoring. Lamongan happens to be a producer of milkfish. During harvest season, the price of milkfish is very cheap and is often used as a soto flavoring. 

This fish is added to the soto recipe by boiling or frying it, then mashed and mixed into the soto soup. Its function is similar to koya shrimp crackers, which is to add flavor to the soto soup. 

Because the milkfish has been mashed, we cannot see the fish, and can only taste its savory flavor in the soto soup. However, most soto ayam Lamongan sold in big cities do not use milkfish in the recipe. 

In short, soto ayam Lamongan is a dish that combines various traditions. In a bowl of soto ayam Lamongan, there are Chinese, Dutch, Indian, and Lamongan kitchen traditions.

Ingredients of Lamongan Chicken Soto 

The recipe for soto ayam has changed little by little, adapting to local traditions. To find out the adaptation of the chicken soto recipe from time to time, we can look at the chicken soto recipe in the baboon book of Nusantara recipes inherited from Bung Karno, Mustikarasa

In this book, the seasoning components of soto ayam are fairly minimalist. Only shallots, garlic, turmeric, ginger, scallions, white pepper, cloves, cinnamon, salt and soy sauce. 

In Lamongan kitchens, cloves and cinnamon are not commonly used as these two spices are rarely available in the kitchen. Despite not using cloves and cinnamon, the Lamongan chicken soto recipe is richer in spices than the Mustikarasa recipe. The recipe also contains candlenut, galangal, coriander, lemongrass, lime leaves, celery, lime, and shrimp crackers. 

Despite the abundance of seasonings, the Lamongan chicken soto recipe is flexible. If an ingredient is not available, it can be substituted with something similar. The result is still delicious chicken soto.


Until now, in rural Lamongan, soto ayam for traditional celebrations still retains its original recipe using native free-range chicken. This is because it is still easy to get native chicken in the village. Even if someone does not keep chickens at home, they can easily buy them from their neighbors or at the market.

In the market, native chickens are sold alive. Buyers can choose the best and healthiest chicken. Male chickens (rooster) are generally preferred because the broth is tastier than female chickens (hen). 

Native chicken.

In Lamongan, raising native chickens is easy peasy. Their main food is bran, which is a by-product of rice milling. The area along the Bengawan River is the main producer of rice in Lamongan. 

Native chicken broth smells delicious, tastes savory, clear, not so oily. Even with only salt seasoning without any additional seasoning, kampung chicken stew tastes delicious. The meat of native chicken is also firm. Suitable for soto slices. If sliced into small, thin, oblique slices, the meat does not easily fall apart. 

The skin of native chicken is also tough because it contains a lot of collagen. It can be sliced thinly and remains intact. Unlike the skin of broiler chicken, which practically cannot be sliced because it is very soft and has a lot of fat.

However, there are only a few soto ayam Lamongan in big cities that still retain the native chicken component. Usually, the stalls that still use native chicken will call their stalls “Warung Soto Ayam Kampung Asli”. This is to differentiate it from soto stalls that use super native chicken (ayam kampung super, ayam jowo super, or ayam joper). 

Ayam joper is the breed of chicken most commonly used for soto ayam Lamongan in big cities. It is cheaper than the original ayam kampung so that the selling price of the soto can still be kept below Rp 15,000 per serving.

Ayam joper has similar traits to ayam kampung in terms of broth flavor and texture. This chicken is the result of a cross between native rooster and laying hens. 

Joper chicken.

Joper chickens grow fast, like broilers. At the age of 2 months it can already be consumed. The price is cheaper than the original native chicken.

A small number of soto ayam sellers use meat from unproductive laying hens. This type of chicken is sometimes called red chicken because its feathers are usually brick red. The meat is thicker than that of native chicken because laying hens are usually fatter.

The meat is also tough because of its high collagen content (meat fiber) like native chickens. It doesn’t fall apart easily when sliced thinly.

This type of chicken is often an alternative to native chicken because the price is the cheapest compared to joper chicken or native chicken. 

Among layer farmers, this chicken is usually sold as an ingredient for nugget, sausage, or meatballs. The meat is chopped and then processed in other forms so that the people do not recognize its original texture. If sold in the form of regular meat, this chicken meat is not marketable because it is tough and it takes a long time to cook. 

For soto sellers, this tough texture is not a big problem. This is because the chicken is not served in large pieces but sliced into small pieces. The way to make it tender is simply to boil it longer so that the meat is not too tough. 

Among farmed chickens, broiler chicken (ayam potong or commonly called ayam negeri, domestic chicken) is the least suitable for soto ayam. The meat is too tender and easily falls apart when sliced into small pieces. 

However, if we want to make soto for ourselves, we can still use broiler chicken, which is widely sold in the market. The result is still delicious soto. 

To prevent the meat from falling apart easily when sliced, the chicken that has been boiled and the broth extracted can be fried to give it a firmer texture. Or, if we avoid fried foods, the boiled chicken can be roasted to reduce the water content so that the texture is firmer and easier to slice. 

The point is, the Lamongan chicken soto recipe is flexible. It’s not rigid. Even if we don’t have native chicken, other chicken will do. 

Real free-range chicken is hard to find in the market. What is usually sold in the market is broiler chicken or joper chicken. If we want to buy real native chicken meat, we can order it from chicken butchers who butcher their own chickens. They usually have connections to sellers of native chicken. 

Garlic and Shallots

These two types of onions are an inseparable pair in Indonesian recipes, and Lamongan chicken soup is no exception. Lamongan people call it an inseparable pair of words, “bawang-brambang”. Bawang is garlic. Brambang is shallots. 

Shallots and garlic are mainly needed in the initial seasoning that will be sautéed. Fried garlic is also required when making koya powder. Fried shallots are sometimes also sprinkled into the soto to be served. But this sprinkling of fried shallots is not always present in Lamongan chicken soto recipes.

This combination of shallots and garlic is the natural flavor of soto. Both are mixed with other spices until it forms a paste and then sautéed.

The controlled heating process will cause some of the organic sulfur compounds in the onions to turn into aromatic compounds. This is what makes onions make any dish delicious.

This heating process must be controlled. It should not be too hot or too long as the onions burn easily and lose their aroma. These spices are sautéed without waiting for the oil to boil first. 

During sautéing, the spices must be stirred constantly so that no part burns. In cooking recipes, sautéing onions is usually recommended until they smell fragrant. This fragrant odor is nothing but aromatic compounds derived from the organic sulfur of the onion. 

In a soto recipe, garlic is required twice. The first time is to make the spice paste. Secondly, to make koya by frying it first and then mashing it together with shrimp crackers.

Shallots are also needed twice. First, to make the spice paste. Second, for sprinkling when the soto is served. However, not all soto recipes use fried shallots. This is just one version of recipe. 

Turmeric, Ginger, Galangal

These three types of rhizomatous spices are widely grown in home yards in villages in Lamongan. All three are important ingredients of soto Lamongan. Just as important as shallots and garlic. The combination of these rhizomes gives Lamongan chicken soto its yellow color and fragrant aroma. 

To give the soto a golden yellow color, our grandmothers used to choose mature turmeric. It is usually marked by a deeper orange color. This turmeric is taken from plants that have flowered. If the turmeric is not mature enough, the yellow color of the soto is rather faded. Less tempting.

The same goes for ginger and galangal. Both are also taken from mature plants. Mature rhizome has a stronger aroma. 

Nowadays, we may not pay much attention to the age of turmeric, ginger or galangal. This is reasonable because today we get turmeric from the store. We don’t know the turmeric plant, let alone know which rhizome is mature. 

There are three ways of blending rhizomatous spices. Each has advantages and disadvantages. 

  1. The stir-fry method. The rhizomes is crushed (or now chopped) with other spices and then sautéed. This method makes the aroma of rhizomes blend more perfectly with the soup. The soto also smells better because the heating process makes the aromatic substances in the rhizomes more fragrant. Another advantage is that the soto lasts longer and does not spoil as quickly. The downside is that this method creates more soup dregs. 
  1. The smash-plunge method. The rhizomes are crushed and thrown into the soup. Galangal are crushed directly, while turmeric and ginger are roasted first and then crushed. The purpose of roasting the rhizomes is to make it smell more fragrant. This method can keep the soto soup clearer because there is not much pulp. However, this method requires more rhizomes. Even though it has been crushed, there is still essence retained in the rhizomes. 
  1. The grate-plunge method. The rhizomes are not crushed but grated and put directly into the soup at the end of the cooking process. The rhizomes are not stir-fried. The aim is to prevent the essence from evaporating due to the heat. The advantage of this method is that it makes the soto healthier because the soup has medicinal properties. The medicinal substances in the rhizomes are not broken down by heat. 

Leeks/scallions/Chinese chives and celery 

Of the three types of allium leaves above, the most commonly used is scallions. It is chopped into small pieces along with celery and then sprinkled on the soup when served. 

The least commonly used is Chinese chives because they are hard to find nowadays. Back in the 1980s, chives were still often used because they were still widely grown in home yards in villages. The aroma of chives is similar to garlic, so a little can make the soto more delicious. 

Kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and bay leaves

Of the three aromatic leaves above, at least lime leaves and lemongrass must be present. Bay leaves can be left out if they are not available. Usually, these aromatic leaves are sautéed with the spices. The lime leaves have their leaf bones removed first, while the lemongrass is crushed first so that its essential oil (aromatic substance) comes out. 

From the components above, we can see that the Lamongan chicken soup recipe uses a lot of aromatic spices, ranging from turmeric, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, lime leaves, bay leaves, to celery. That’s why the aroma of soto ayam Lamongan is so fragrant.


This is also an important ingredient of the soto recipe. Candlenuts are similar to peanuts, containing a lot of starch, fat, and protein. It tastes better if roasted first or sautéed with spices. Candlenuts give a savory taste to the soto soup because they contain a lot of oil and protein.

Roasted candlenut

Coriander and white pepper

Most Cookpad-era kitchens nowadays use powdered coriander and white pepper in handy packets. Just pour it into the dish like Rudy Choirudin does on television.

However, for an authentic soto recipe, whole coriander seeds and white pepper are much better as they have a stronger flavor and aroma. When coriander seeds and white pepper are ground and packed, some of the aromatic properties have been evaporated during the process. 

Shrimp crackers, whole shrimps and milkfish

Prawn crackers or shrimp crackers are a mandatory component because they are the main ingredient of koya. The whole shrimp and milkfish are not mandatory. If available, they can be added to make the soup more savory. 

The shrimp or milkfish are boiled with chicken, then mashed and mixed into the soup. The shrimp can also be sautéed first and then pureed and added to the soup. The milkfish can be fried first, then mashed and added to the soup. This second method can reduce the muddy odor of the milkfish. 

Lime or tamarind

Soto tastes fresher when lime juice is added at the time of serving. Actually, the acidic element can also be added directly to the soup during the cooking process. You can use either raw unripe or ripe tamarind. 

If raw unripe tamarind is used, this acidic material needs to be boiled first until soft, then crushed with hot water and then the juice is added to the soup. 

If ripe tamarind is used, this ingredient can be directly crushed with hot water and the juice taken to be added to the soup. If the soup already has tamarind in it, there is no need to add lime juice when served.

The addition of tamarind and lime is timed differently. Tamarind can be added directly into the soup during the cooking process. This is because the main acid content in tamarind is heat-stable organic acids. The taste remains sour even though it is simmered for a long time during the cooking process. 

Unlike the case with lime juice, which contains organic acids that are easily decomposed by heat. The sourness is reduced if heated for a long time. Especially in the stall, soto is usually kept warm for hours. That is why lime juice should be added to the soto when it is served. 

In addition, lime also contains a lot of essential oils (aromatic substances), which are also volatile when exposed to heat. Meanwhile, tamarind fruit does not contain much aromatic substances. Lime is taken for its acid and aroma. While tamarind fruit is only taken for its acidic substance.

Salt, sugar, MSG flavoring, instant broth

The combination of salt and sugar in the right proportion can make a dish savory even without the addition of monosodium glutamate (MSG/micin). However, most soto today, especially at stalls, almost certainly have flavoring added. Some even add instant broth. 

Actually, the basic Lamongan chicken soto recipe already contains many natural flavoring components that make the dish savory. Chicken broth, garlic, shallots, candlenuts, shrimp crackers koya, all of these are savory flavoring elements. 

If the recipe also uses the addition of whole shrimp or milkfish, the soup is truly tasty. MSG flavoring is only needed if the seasoning is incomplete. 

Chili and soy sauce

Chili sambal and soy sauce are usually served separately, not cooked together with seasoning because people’s tastes vary. Soy sauce is indeed a component that determines the flavor of soto but it is not the main component. Without soy sauce, chicken soto is already tasty.

Sambal is also a matter of taste but this component must be available with the soto. If we are cooking soto for ourselves, the spiciness is actually better if the chili white peppers are stirred and sautéed together with shallots, garlic, and so on. 

During the stir-frying process, capsaicin (the pungent substance of chili white peppers) will dissolve in the oil. The spicy flavor becomes more homogeneous with other components, not easily burning the tongue and causing stomach pain. There is a warm chili aftertaste in the mouth after meals. . 

This kind of spicy flavor and aftertaste is difficult to get at the stall because the chili is separated and is not sautéed. When the sambal is put into the soto, the spicy substance of the chili cannot be mixed homogeneously into the soto so it easily burns the mouth. 

To prevent people from taking too much chili sauce, red cayenne white pepper can be added with red chili and salt so the chili sauce looks like it’s very spicy when it’s not. 

Hard boiled egg, glass noodles, cabbage, bean sprouts 

These ingredients are not the main components of soto. Their function is to enliven the dish. So that if the chicken slices are small, the soto still looks lively. These ingredients are neutral in flavor, not really affecting the deliciousness of the soto. Even without the boiled egg and so on, the soto is already delicious. 

Nutritional Aspects of Soto Ayam Lamongan

Many people are afraid to eat soto ayam Lamongan because they are worried about cholesterol. This concern makes sense because most Lamongan chicken soto sold in stalls nowadays has quite a lot of oil. 

Soto ayam has three important parts that determine its nutrition: the type of chicken used, the amount of oil used to sauté the spices, and the amount of spices used.

Type of chicken used 

Actually, Lamongan chicken soto, whose recipe is still authentic, does not use much oil. It tends to be clear like soto ayam Kadipiro Yogyakarta. This is because the chicken used is free-range native chicken, usually rooster. 

Clear Lamongan chicken soup. (IG@jogjamakanterus)

The meat of native chicken is mostly muscle, which is rich in protein. There is not much fat. The broth is clear. Soto soup eaten warm or cold is equally delicious. 

This is different from the farmed chicken that is now widely used. Livestock chickens have more fat because their body development is accelerated. So it is natural that the broth of farmed chicken contains a lot of fat. 

Free-range chickens are healthier than farmed chickens. Firstly because the diet of native chickens is more varied. They eat live insects, live worms, fresh grains, grasses, and so on. 

These fresh foods contain many nutrients such as omega 3, a good fat. The chickens are active. The males often fight with other males, so the food will be processed into muscle protein. 

Meanwhile, farm chickens have monotonous feed, such as corn and factory-made concentrates. They do not eat live insects and do not move much. Their physical growth is encouraged to get fat quickly, so the meat mass contains a lot of fat. 

Stir-fry oil

The second source of oil in soto is the oil used to sauté the spices. Our grandmothers in the past tended to be frugal in using oil because they did not have much stock of cooking oil (which was made from coconut). 

Meanwhile, in the Cookpad era nowadays, we tend to be generous in using cooking oil. That’s why Lamongan chicken soup nowadays tends to be a lot oily. 

Actually, the authentic soto ayam recipe only uses a little oil for sautéing. If there is a lot of oil, of course the name is not sautéing but frying. Moreover, in the sauteed seasoning there is also hazelnut which is oily. 

The purpose of stir-frying is to heat the spices so that the aromatic substances come out so that the spices become fragrant. So the amount of oil used does not need to be much. It is enough to prevent the spices from burning or sticking to the pan. 

The amount of spices used

Although soto ayam Lamongan contains a lot of fat, it also contains many fat-fighters, including lime, chili, galangal, ginger, turmeric, shallots, garlic. All of these are components of traditional medicine. So actually eating soto ayam Lamongan is like eating chicken and drinking herbal medicine. 

In terms of nutrition, the healthier soto ayam is the one with less oil but more spices. In Javanese kitchen terms, “wani bumbu” (dare to use herbs). Usually, this kind of soto still maintains the authentic recipe using native chicken. The savory taste does not rely on MSG but on spices. 

Authentic Lamongan chicken soto like this has a characteristic: the soup can be deliciously sipped like wedang. In Javanese, “diuyup”. It has a pleasant and soft savory taste. Another characteristic is that the soto still tastes good even when eaten cold. So, even if the soto is bought from the stall and eaten at home, it still tastes just as good as at the stall. 

If the soto broth is oily, the flavor usually decreases drastically when the soto is brought home and eaten cold. People often attribute this phenomenon to shamanism when in fact it is just a phenomenon of liquid chemistry. 

When the soup is still warm, the oil tends to mix with the soup. There are many savory substances in the oil, so the soup also tastes savory. When it cools down, the soto oil tends to separate from the soup so that the savory taste of the soup is reduced. This phenomenon does not only occur in chicken soto but also in oily soup foods, such as bakso and rawon. 

If we’re worried about soto oil, there’s actually a practical way to neutralize it. We can add more lime juice to the soto. Or, if the tartness bothers us, we can add more lime juice to our drink.

Chicken soup with lots of herbal spices is not only tastier and healthier but also lasts longer. This is because the herbs contain many medicinal substances that have antibacterial properties. 

In the old days, when refrigerators had not yet entered the villages in Lamongan, soto was already known as a long-lasting food. If there was leftover soto from a traditional celebration, it was simply warmed up at night and in the morning. This way, the soto can last for several days. 

Easy Way to Make Lamongan Chicken Soto

Soto ayam Lamongan is basically a dish that doesn’t take long to make. The longest part is boiling the chicken meat. This can be done while preparing the seasoning.

There are several ways to prepare seasoning, ranging from easy to complicated. To make it quick, we choose the most practical way.

  • Cut the chicken into 4 pieces. The pieces should be large so that it will be easy to slice later. 
  • Boil the chicken until tender. Native chicken is tougher than broiler so it takes longer to cook.
  • While waiting for the chicken to be tender, grind the main spices, namely shallots, garlic, candlenuts, coriander seeds, white pepper, turmeric, ginger, galangal, and chili. Here we just use the first method, where the rhizomes and chili are also pureed and sauteed. 

The mashing process can be done with mortar and pestle or chopper. In terms of flavor, the spices that are pureed with mortar are more delicious than the spices that are chopped. This is because when the spices are crushed with a mortar so that the essence juice comes out perfectly. While the chopper process only chop the spices into small pieces, not grinding. 

  • Sauté the ground spices above with a little oil. If you want a clear soto that is not greasy, use just a little oil for sautéing. Stir-fry over medium heat until fragrant.
  • Add the lime leaves that have been removed from the leaf bones, lemongrass that has been crushed, and bay leaves. Continue stir-frying for a while until the smell is more fragrant. 
  • Put the sauteed spices into the chicken stew. Add salt, sugar, and flavoring. Taste the flavor at this stage. If it’s not salty enough, add more salt.
  • Remove the chicken, drain, and slice thinly with a sharp knife. The chicken can be removed before the stew is seasoned. If the chicken is seasoned, the sliced chicken has a yellowish appearance and will taste more savory. 

Actually, at this stage, the cooking process is complete. Other components such as glass noodles, cabbage, and bean sprouts are just additions. They do not affect the flavor of the soup. 

  • Serve the soup with sliced chicken, a sprinkle of fried shallots, chopped scallions, chopped celery, lime wedges, and sambal if there is no chili in the soup.

How to Make The Koya Powder

The final flavor of Lamongan chicken soup is largely determined by the koya. This is because koya contains two savory ingredients, shrimp and fried garlic. 

Even without koya, soto ayam Lamongan is already yummy because it contains chicken broth, stir-fried shallots, garlic, candlenuts, sugar, salt, and MSG. With the addition of koya, the soto becomes more savory but the fresh taste is reduced. Soto becomes thicker because shrimp crackers are made from tapioca flour. 

Here’s how to make bright yellowish and savory koya:

  • Choose good shrimp crackers that are truly made from shrimps. Not the shrimp crackers that rely on MSG. The flavor of koya is largely determined by the quality of the shrimp crackers. 
  • Dry the shrimp crackers thoroughly under the sun. If they are not dry enough, the crackers will have a hard time expanding. If the shrimp crackers are wide, break them into small pieces to make it easy when fried. 
  • Fry with enough oil to submerge the crackers. If the oil is not enough, the crackers will not rise properly.
  • Fry on a moderately hot flame, but not too hot. The heat must be just right. If it’s not hot enough, the crackers won’t expand. On the other hand, if it’s too hot, the crackers will burn quickly. To find out if the temperature is right, try frying a single cracker. If it expands well as soon as you put it in the oil, the heat is just right.
  • Fry the crackers until they are cooked just right, bright in color, not dull because they are almost burnt. 
  • Prepare the garlic. Slice it thinly but not too thin so that it doesn’t burn quickly when fried. Fry until cooked, about the same color as the cooked shrimp crackers. 
  • Puree the shrimp crackers with the fried garlic. You can use a chopper, food processor, or mortar and pestle.

Koya is served at the table just like soy sauce and sambal. Koya does make the soto more savory. However, you don’t need to add too much koya. The more koya you add, the more savory the soto becomes, but the less refreshing it becomes.

How to Make Soto Ayam Lamongan More Palatable

There are thousands of soto ayam Lamongan recipe articles on the internet. Most of these recipes are essentially the same. Even if there are variations, the differences are not that significant. The main ingredients are shallots, garlic, candlenuts, turmeric, ginger, galangal, white pepper, coriander, lemongrass leaves, lime leaves, bay leaves, scallions, lime, shrimp crackers, chili, sugar, salt.

For this recipe to produce a delicious soto, there are some guidelines and tips that need to be followed.

Use native free-range chicken, at least joper

Chicken meat sold in the market is generally broiler meat. Commonly called ayam negeri. This type of chicken is not suitable for soto. The broth is greasy, the meat easily collapses when sliced thinly, and the flavor of the broth is less delicious than free-range chicken. 

You can order free-range chicken from butchers who cut up their own chickens. They usually know who sells ayam kampung. 

When ordering ayam kampung meat, we must emphasize that we are referring to real ayam kampung, not ayam joper. This is because joper chicken is sometimes called ayam kampung super.

Authentic ayam kampung meat is more difficult to find because there are not as many breeders as joper chicken. If real native chicken meat is not available, we can use joper chicken. This chicken meat is the closest in character to the original native chicken. 

Increase the amount of candlenut

Soto ayam Lamongan does not use coconut milk. We can enhance its savory flavor by using candlenuts. This method, for example, is practiced by Cak Har’s Soto Ayam Lamongan depot in Surabaya. 

The result is a cloudy chicken soto that resembles a soto with coconut milk. The recommended amount of candlenuts is at least as much as garlic. 

The right amount of sugar and salt

Even without the addition of MSG, chicken soto can be delicious with salt and sugar. The ratio of both should be just right. In general, the recommended ratio is 2 parts of sugar and 1 part of salt. If the composition is 1 to 1, the taste is too salty.

Shallot and garlic composition

One of the secrets of good soto is to use large amounts of shallots and garlic. Villagers call this “wani bumbu” (bold seasoning). These two onions play a very important role in making the dish savory. 

The recommended composition for fine seasoning is 2 parts shallot and 1 part or a maximum of 2 parts garlic. There is already garlic in the koya, so there is no need for a lot of garlic in the spices. 

Turmeric, ginger, galangal

These rhizomes are quite strong in aroma. The composition does not need to be much. Each is just half the amount of garlic.

Puree the spices

Actually, the process of pureeing is more perfect with a cobek and ulekan (mortar and pestle). Because the mortar will grind the spices until the juice comes out. If you are not strong enough to use a mortar and pestle, you can use a chopper. When chopping spices, do not add water because the spices will be sautéed later. If you need to add lubricants, just add a little cooking oil. 

If you add water, when you sauté the spices, the temperature will only reach the temperature of boiling water. The fragrant aroma of shallots and garlic cannot come out optimally. 

When sautéing, we only need to pour a little oil into the pan because there is already oil in the spices. 

Roast the spices before blending

Soto spices will become more savory and fragrant if some of the spices are roasted before blending, namely candlenut, coriander, turmeric, and ginger. This method can also make the soto last longer. 

Sauté all the spices

The sautéing process is done in two stages. In the first stage, sauté the spices until the garlic and shallots smell fragrant. 

After that, add the lime leaves, lemongrass leaves that have been crushed, and bay leaves. Continue sautéing for a while until the spices become more fragrant.

Add shrimp or milkfish

The shrimp can be boiled with the chicken or sautéed separately. Once cooked, the shells are removed, and the meat is chopped until smooth, then added to the soup.

Milkfish can also be stewed with chicken. After it is cooked, take only the meat to be mashed and mixed into the soup. Alternatively, the milkfish is fried first and then the meat is mashed. This second method can also remove the smell of muddy milkfish.

Add instant flavoring

Actually, soto already contains many savory components, including broth, shallots, garlic, candlenuts, shrimp crackers (koya), and a sugar-salt combination. Even without the addition of MSG, soto is already savory.

The problem is that people’s tongues today have become accustomed to the savory taste of micin. Our tongues have lost their sensitivity to natural savory substances. Hence, today’s soto recipes are practically inseparable from MSG. 

When Lamongan villagers were still accustomed to using Chinese chives, the only flavoring available was the single white crystal form of monosodium glutamate (MSG). The brand that was widely circulated in Lamongan at that time was Moto cap Mobil. 

At that time, only this MSG was called micin. There were no combination micin brands such as Royco, Masako, Maggi Magic Lezat, and the like. 

Since knowing MSG, Lamongan villagers have been using it. But the use is reasonable. Only a little. Now flavoring is often overused in chicken soto. If we cook soto ourselves, we can avoid MSG. But if we buy soto at a stall, we will almost certainly encounter micin.

Among soto sellers, there are various brands of micin used. In general, micin that has a “chicken-flavored” variant, such as chicken-flavored Royco or chicken-flavored Masako, is usually more savory than pure MSG such as Miwon or Ajinomoto. 

These chicken-flavored micin brands contain MSG plus other flavor enhancers, such as inosinate, guanylate, succinate, and synthetic aroma of chicken broth and other savory seasonings. 

Micin can save those of us who are not confident in cooking soto. After adding micin, even soto that is not very tasty can immediately become savory. 

Apart from micin, soto ayam sellers sometimes also use instant broth. This instant broth is actually broth extract plus micin. It contains MSG-like flavor enhancers such as those found in Royco and Masako. So it is natural that soto ayam Lamongan tastes very savory because it contains a lot of natural savory components plus micin. 

With micin, the soto does become more savory but the flavor is less refreshing. The soup is not as pleasant to sip as wedang. If you’re cooking for yourself, you don’t need to use instant broth.

The Philosophy Behind the Soto Lamongan 

Although it’s just an ordinary meal, soto ayam Lamongan actually summarizes the Lamongan people’s way of life in dealing with limitations. Behind a bowl of soto ayam Lamongan is a philosophy of life that they practice.  

Utilizing discarded goods  

The history of soto starts with jaoto, an offal soup. Offal in those days was the discarded part of the animal. In the hands of the Chinese, this discarded material could still be utilized into delicious dishes.

This philosophy remained when jaoto evolved into Lamongan chicken soto. In the hands of the Lamongan people, the shrimp cracker crumbs that are no longer suitable to be served to guests can still be processed into koya powder, which unexpectedly can make soto more delicious. 

By cooking soto, practically no part of the chicken is wasted. Even the parts with very little meat such as wings can still be sliced off the skin to be mixed into the sliced meat.  

Using available seasoning

The history of soto is a history of recipe adaptation. Soto recipes evolved in various regions, adapting to the region’s unique seasonings. For example, in Pekalongan, soto uses tauco seasoning so it is often called tauto. Tauco is a seasoning made from fermented soybeans that is popular in Pekalongan.

In Lamongan, the soto recipe has also been adapted. At first glance, the Lamongan soto recipe seems complicated. It must use this and that spice. 

Actually, chicken soto recipes are flexible. If a spice is not available in the kitchen, it can be left out. The end result is still chicken soto. The flavor may be reduced but it does not diminish its identity as soto. 

This philosophy is similar to Sunan Prapen’s message when he appointed Raden Nurlali as the leader of Tlemang Village. He advised the audience to be treated to a chicken dish that was seasoned in a simple way. Of course, at that time the trade in kitchen spices was not intensive. 

The result was indeed a simple dish. Just enough to be called a soupy chicken dish. But this is a great simplicity because the essence of the dish lies not in its luxury but in sincerity in honoring guests.

Even in Lamongan in the past, the various spices for soto were not always available. Spices such as turmeric, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, chili, or kaffir lime leaves were usually available because these spices were commonly grown in fields or yards. 

However, foreign spices such as white pepper, candlenut or coriander are not always available as they are not commonly grown in the home garden. Even if some of these spices are missing, the dish will still be soto. 

There are obligatory spices such as shallots and garlic. These two types of onions are essential in making soto savory. These two spices, which in Lamongan are called “bawang-brambang”, are usually always available in the kitchen. Without them, any kind of dish, not just soto, will taste bad.

In the past, Lamongan soto recipes used to use Chinese chives because they were widely grown at that time. Now chives are hard to find, so today’s soto recipes mostly use scallions, which are easily found in the market. 

Honoring guests as much as possible

The choice of soto as a dish during a traditional celebration is not just a random one. In Lamongan, there are two dishes that are commonly served during celebrations, namely soto and rawon. Soto ranks first. Rawon is only served occasionally because beef is much more expensive than chicken. 

Soto and rawon are both soupy foods. The soup in these two dishes prevents the guests from experiencing keseretan (food obstruction in the esophagus). At celebration events, due to the large number of invitees present, the distribution of food is often delayed. Especially if the number of pelandang (celebration committee) is inadequate. 

It often happens that the guests have eaten all the meal but the drinks have not arrived. If the dish is not soup, many guests may experience food obstruction. 

Soto rice ready for soup. (IG @wr.sotolamongan)

In addition, soto and rawon can be served quickly and practically. Rice is prepared on a plate with sliced chicken or beef. When it’s time to serve, the soup is simply poured over the rice and covered with wide shrimp crackers. 

Even if the host can only serve soto or rawon with a few slices of meat, the dish is still appropriate because the slices of meat are not visible because they are covered by the shrimp crackers. 

Soto ayam is a specialty for guests. It is rare for people in rural Lamongan to make soto ayam for daily meals. Since it is intended for guests, soto is made to be as delicious as possible. This is also the case when Lamongan people sell soto in the big cities. They try to make it taste as good as possible because the buyers are also guests. 

Soto ayam for celebrations usually uses the best chicken, which is a large and healthy rooster. This kind of chicken has a savory broth and lots of meat. Until now, the tradition of using roosters is still maintained in celebration events. 

In soto stalls, of course, this tradition cannot be maintained due to the limited stock of rooster chickens. 

Utilizing ingredients sparingly

Chicken-based soto is the type of soto that best suits the socio-cultural and economic conditions of most Indonesians, not just Lamongan. Chicken meat is more affordable than beef. 

Not everyone can afford beef but almost everyone can afford chicken. In rural Lamongan in the past, most families kept native chickens. If they need to make soto, they just pick them. No need to buy. 

The authentic Lamongan chicken soto recipe uses native chickens. Not broilers, layer chickens, or jowo super chickens (joper). The broth of native chicken has less oil, so soto ayam Lamongan is less oily. 

Free-range chicken meat is also tougher than broiler meat. In the world of soto, tough meat is not a weakness but an advantage as long as it is not too tough. This is because when sliced into small pieces, the meat does not fall apart. 

Now the population of native chicken is decreasing, the price is getting more expensive, while chicken soup sellers are increasing. Only a few soto chicken sellers still use native chicken. 

Most soto sellers use farmed chicken, which has more meat and is cheaper. Nevertheless, the flavor of Lamongan chicken soto is still quite delicious. 

The use of milkfish as a soto flavoring actually follows this principle. Because milkfish is abundantly available and sometimes underpriced, it is then used as a soto flavoring.

Sometimes the flavoring used is shrimps. Not shrimp crackers, but whole shrimps or prawns that are fried or boiled and then crushed and mixed into the soto soup. The presence of shrimp can make the soto even more savory. More savory than using koya.


Some say that soto stands for “podo roso, podo roto”. It means, share the meal equally. This etymology may just be coincidentally correct. However, it cannot be denied that soto does emphasize the principle of equality. 

For most villagers, one rooster is worth a lot of money. They cannot pick many chickens to serve guests. If the chicken is cooked as opor or fried chicken, then one chicken will only be enough for a dozen guests because the chicken must be cut into large pieces.

It is different if the chicken is cooked as soto. One chicken can be cooked in one big pot with a lot of water. The meat can also be sliced into many pieces so that it can be divided equally for several dozens of people. 

At the traditional celebrations, when the chicken slices have run out and there is only soup left, this soup will be shared with the neighbors. Even without the chicken slices, the soup alone is a luxurious gift. 

From the point of religious view, chicken soup is a dish that is in accordance with the Prophet Muhammad’s recommendation to share with neighbors. In one of the hadiths, Prophet Muhammad recommended that if someone cooks meat, the water should be added a lot so that it can be shared with the neighbors. Even if the soup volume is increased and the amount of meat remains the same, the final taste of the soup can still be delicious as long as the spices are increased.

Above all, soto is an inclusive food. It can accept any component to fulfill the aspirations of a wide variety of people. If someone likes fresh soup, they can add a lot of lime juice. 

If he likes it salty, he can just add salt. If you like it spicy, just add chili sauce. If you like it sweet, just add soy sauce. If you like savory, just add a lot of koya. No dish is as flexible as soto ayam, whether it’s rawon, opor, bumbu bali, or fried chicken. 

Soto Ayam, The Spirit of Life of Lamongan People

There are 27 sub-districts in Lamongan Regency, namely Lamongan, Sukodadi, Deket, Glagah, Mantup, Kembangbahu, Sugio, Kedungpring, Sukorame, Bluluk, Ngimbang, Sambeng, Modo, Babat, Pucuk, Tikung, Sarirejo, Karangbinangun, Turi, Kalitengah, Karanggeneng, Sekaran, Maduran, Laren, Solokuro, Paciran, Brondong. 

The sub-districts that send the most soto-selling migrants are the areas around Bengawan Solo River and Bengawan Jero which are rice producers, namely Deket, Turi, Glagah, Kalitengah, Karanggeneng, Karangbinangun, Laren, Maduran, Sekaran.

It is from this area that the expression “Rendeng gak iso ndodhok, ketigo gak iso cewok” emerged. In the rainy season, the area around the river is flooded. In the dry season, the area is parched. 

Agriculture is unreliable. To survive, the people living along the banks of the Bengawan migrate to big cities, even overseas. Many of them sell soto ayam and pecel lele in their overseas lands, not only in Indonesia, but also abroad. 

Since the Dutch East Indies era, this area has been known as a poor region. Newspaper archives from the Dutch era often reported that the Bengawan Jero area was subject to floods and famine.

The Dutch East Indies government had actually designed a master plan for water control in this area, which covered the areas of Lamongan Regency and Gresik Regency. Unfortunately, until the Dutch handed over sovereignty to the Government of the Republic of Indonesia, this master plan was never implemented. Until now, the Bengawan suburbs, especially Bengawan Jero, are still subject to flooding. 

For Lamongan people on the banks of the Bengawan, soto ayam is the power of life. By selling soto ayam, they can survive and send their children to college. Many of them have become successful entrepreneurs. Opening many branches. Creating jobs for their relatives. Becoming rich people who benefit their villages.

In Jabodetabek, migrants from Lamongan who sell soto ayam and pecel lele formed an association called Putra Asli Lamongan (Pualam). It currently has around 5,000 members. More than 3,000 of them own soto ayam and pecel lele tent stalls. That’s just in Jabodetabek. Not yet in other cities. 

According to Pualam data, the number of migrants from Lamongan is around 20,000 families. Most of them, around 80%, sell soto ayam and pecel lele in various cities in Indonesia.

In Malaysia, Lamongan chicken soup stalls have even become one of the local Muhammadiyah business center. The stall, located at Wisma Sabaruddin, Jalan Raja Alang, Kuala Lumpur, is known as Wasola, short for Warung Soto Lamongan (Lamongan chicken soup stall). The opening of this shop was even inaugurated online by the regent of Lamongan at that time, Fadeli. 

Wasola, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Nowadays, as soto ayam Lamongan becomes more popular, the sellers of this soto are not always Lamongan people. The clearest example is Soto Ambengan Pak Sadi (Asli). Soto Pak Sadi is now categorized as a franchise restaurant. Its branches are in many cities. The franchisee can be anyone. Moreover, this restaurant is not named Soto Lamongan but Soto Ambengan Pak Sadi. 

According to Pak Sadi, the word “Asli” (Original) was added because many people opened soto stalls called soto Ambengan even though the owner of the stall was not related to Mr. Sadi at all. 

Soto Ambengan has been considered a subtype of soto, such as soto Madura or Semarang. Pak Sadi’s soto is actually Lamongan chicken soto. It was pioneered by a Lamongan person, with a Lamongan-style recipe, using turmeric and Lamongan-style koya powder. 

Variations and Innovations of Lamongan Chicken Soto

Based on its history, soto is a constantly evolving cuisine. The recipe gradually changed to suit local conditions. What started as pork offal soup eventually became soto koya ayam Lamongan. 

Even today, the Lamongan chicken soto recipe is not static. In many places, the recipe has changed slightly to suit local tastes. Especially now that soto ayam Lamongan is sold by migrants in various cities. Variations in the Lamongan soto ayam recipe are inevitable.

Soto ayam Lamongan is generally characterized by the use of koya powder, yellow in color, and no coconut milk. Despite having the same characteristics, soto ayam Lamongan in big cities has many variations. Some tend to be clear, not much oil. Some tend to be cloudy, with a lot of oil. 

Some use celery, some do not. Some still use native chicken, many use joper chicken. Some use short bean sprouts like for rawon, some use long bean sprouts. Most of the rice is mixed with the soto but some are separated.

Variation of main ingredients

This is practiced, for example, by Lamongan Jaya Agung chicken soto depot in the Sabang culinary area of Central Jakarta. This legendary stall, which has been open since 1963, uses a spice that is rarely used for soto Lamongan, namely nutmeg. The toppings also include sliced potatoes and tomatoes. This seems to be to suit the Betawi palate.

At this stall, the chicken soto soup is also used to season the satay. Before being grilled, the mutton satay is dipped first into the hot soto soup. This Lamongan chicken soto stall does offer many other menus besides soto. With this bold experiment, it turns out that the Betawi-style soto Lamongan has become a favorite among Jakartans. 

Cak Ali’s soto ayam Lamongan in Setiabudi, Jakarta has another way. In addition to the standard seasoning, this soto also uses cumin. The result is of course a more aromatic soto. 

Variations in ingredients composition

This is practiced, for example, by Cak Har’s soto ayam Lamongan in Sukolilo, Surabaya. This is also a well-known stall in Surabaya. Cak Har’s soto is cloudy yellow in color. At first glance, it looks like it uses coconut milk but it does not. There is quite a lot of oil because the marinade contains a lot of candlenuts.

In Lamongan chicken soto recipe, candlenut is an important component but not the main one. The amount is usually only as much as garlic. If the candlenut component is increased, the result is a soto with a cloudy broth, which at first glance resembles a coconut milk-based soto. 

Variations on preparing spices

In the old days when Lamongan people were not yet familiar with chopper, soto spices were pureed by scraping them on a very large mortar (local language, layah). If the amount was very large, the spices were pounded using a large-and-deep mortar and pestle (lumpang and alu). Nowadays, most soto sellers use a chopper to grind the spices. 

Only a few still use the old-fashioned method. One of them is Pak Djayus’ Lamongan chicken soto depot, which has three branches in Surabaya. At this depot, the spices are mashed by using a specially designed pestle and mortar so that the pasta can come out first at the bottom. This method of mashing can produce a stronger flavor because all the essence of the spices comes out perfectly.

In the standard recipe, aromatic leaves such as kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass leaves are not blended. They are only stir-fried in the final stage of sautéing. But at Soto Ayam Lamongan Cak Ali Setiabudi Jakarta, these lime leaves and lemongrass are chopped into the spices. The result is of course more fragrant because the aromatic substances from lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves come out more perfectly. 

Variations of toppings

The standard topping for Lamongan chicken soto is koya. But at soto Lamongan Nyeel Pak Jupri Sidoarjo, the soto is topped with fried wonton. This is just a bonus. The Lamongan specialty, koya, is still maintained. 

Variations in the type of chicken used

Most soto ayam stalls use ayam joper ( ayam jowo super). A small number still maintain the authentic recipe using native free-range chicken. A few more use non productive laying hens. For example, Mas Abdi’s soto ayam in Blimbing Market, Paciran, Lamongan. Mas Abdi uses laying hens because they are the cheapest that soto can still be sold for Rp 10,000 a portion. 

In fact, the average price of chicken soto in this area is already above Rp 10,000 per serving. Despite using laying hens, the soto still has the authentic taste of soto at a celebration because the seasoning and cooking method are still authentic. 

This is proof that the Lamongan chicken soto recipe can still produce delicious dishes even if the ingredients are replaced with cheaper alternatives. 

Variations on heating method

Before the Lamongan people were introduced to stoves, the cooking process of course used firewood on top of a pawon, a traditional stove made of clay dough and rice husks. Nowadays, there are very few Lamongan people who still use this method. 

It is usually done by older people who are afraid of the stove causing a fire. They live near Perhutani’s forest so they can still find firewood for free. 

The process of cooking with firewood (locally called kasgeni) produces more delicious food. This is because the wood produces a distinctive aroma like the coals used to burn satay or grill fish and chicken.

Although almost all Lamongan people now use stoves, this does not mean that this ancient method has been abandoned altogether. This is for example done by the soto ayam Lamongan Otos stall in Karangploso Malang. This stall does not use a gas stove to heat the soto but charcoal. 

This old-fashioned method is also still practiced by the legendary Soto Ayam Kadipiro Yogyakarta (not soto ayam Lamongan). The Kadipiro stall even uses firewood instead of charcoal. Although the cost of firewood is more expensive than the cost of a gas stove, this old-fashioned method is still applied because the goal is to maintain the authentic taste.

Packaging variations

Most soto ayam Lamongan are served in large bowls. The rice is usually mixed directly into the soto. Sometimes the rice is separated. 

Soto ayam Lamongan Pak Ali in Gubeng Surabaya has a different way of serving. The soto is served in a coconut shell bowl like the soto of Yogyakarta or Central Java. Soto Lamongan originally did not have this aesthetic taste because Lamongan culture tends to be as it is, or in the local language, blokosuto

Soto Cak Son Malang even has a packaging innovation in the style of the Tiktok generation. This stall serves delivery purchases. The soup is contained in a paper bowl packaging in the style of contemporary coffee.

Variations of side dishes

Soto ayam Lamongan in the villages originally only contained sliced chicken meat plus skin and was served with shrimp crackers. Even if there are additions, it is usually only hard boiled chicken eggs. Other parts such as feet, liver, and gizzards were not commonly served with soto.

Now soto Lamongan has turned into a luxurious dish. The sliced chicken meat is abundant, sometimes added with sliced liver-gizzards, feet, uritan (young egg), and some even offer chicken bone. 

Even at Cak Faza’s soto ayam Lamongan depot in Solo, the soto is served with the neck and head of the chicken across the bowl. In the past in villages in Lamongan, the head of the chicken was only for family members to eat, not served to guests because it was considered inappropriate. 

All of these are variations that suit the tastes of consumers. It’s all fine because, in essence, the customer is today’s guest. 

Soto Ayam Lamongan and Instant Food

Soto ayam is now an international food. In 2021, CNN released a list of the 20 most delicious soups in the world. Soto ayam was named one of them. This proves that the deliciousness of soto ayam can be accepted by the world’s taste. 

More specifically, in 2013, Pak Sadi’s Soto Ambengan was named one of the Masters of the Year from the World Street Food Congress Food in Singapore. This soto beats many types of street food from various countries.

Although not called soto ayam Lamongan, Pak Sadi’s Soto Ambengan is actually soto ayam Lamongan in the truest sense. The soto is made by Pak Sadi, a Lamongan, with a typical Lamongan recipe, using turmeric and koya. These two acknowledgments alone are enough to prove that soto ayam Lamongan is a food that everyone loves. 

In Indonesia, one of the characteristics of the high status of regional specialties is the presence of that flavor variant in Indomie products. We know that Indomie has long had a soto flavor. But soto flavor alone is not enough. Indomie still releases a variant of Lamongan chicken soto flavor.

Unfortunately, the taste of Indomie soto ayam Lamongan is far from the actual taste of soto ayam Lamongan. This is understandable because Indomie relies more on flavor enhancers, not actual spices. 

There are many instant chicken soto seasoning products on the market. These products do not include the name soto ayam Lamongan, but judging from the composition of the seasoning, which contains turmeric, this instant seasoning is similar to the seasoning for soto ayam Lamongan. It’s just that there is no koya.

Seasoning like this is very convenient. All you have to do is pour it in. Done. However, if we want to cook soto as a traditional dish, the original recipe is enough, without adding instant seasoning. 

Pecel Lele and the Economy of Soto Ayam

In big cities, soto ayam Lamongan at street stalls is often paired with pecel lele, fried catfish served with tomato chili sauce. Initially, the emergence of pecel lele was to diversify the menu. 

In Jakarta, pecel lele is thought to have appeared later in the 1970s. There are two versions of why it is called pecel lele when it is not pecel. 

The first version is that at that time it was called pecek lele ( fried catfish served with sambal). There is no pecel component at all in this menu because the sauce is tomato sauce. The name pecek lele gradually changed to pecel lele to differentiate it from Betawi’s pecak, which is made from fish and coconut-candlenut sauce. 

The second version is that the name was pecel lele from the beginning because villagers used to call the side dish eaten with chili sauce in large quantities as pecel. This is similar to the custom of villagers calling any side dish “iwak” (fish). A side dish of tempeh or tofu is called iwak tempe or iwak tahu.

If soto ayam is a fancy meal for a celebration, sambal tomat is an everyday meal for Lamongan people. It is usually used as packed meals for working in the rice fields. It’s a very cheap type of food and can make any side dish very tasty. Chili peppers and tomatoes are just picked up in the fields. Fish from Bengawan. 

In Lamongan itself, catfish is actually not a popular fish for consumption. People on the banks of Bengawan consume more wader, keting, milkfish, mujair, or gabus. 

Lamongan people choose catfish for sale because it is easy to farm and can withstand all kinds of conditions. Catfish can be brought alive to the stall. If there is a buyer, the catfish is processed so that the fish is guaranteed to always be fresh. Catfish that have not been sold can be brought home again alive. This is different from sea fish or seafood that cannot be brought back and forth alive.

In addition, the choice of catfish also seems to be influenced by the belief of some Lamongan people who consider it a fish that brings prosperity. This belief is still alive today in Lamongan, especially in the sub-districts of Deket, Glagah, Karangbinangun. 

Perhaps it is like the people of Kebontengah, Rejotengah Village, Deket Subdistrict choose to sell soto ayam because they follow in the footsteps of Buyut Bakal, their ancestor who worked as a cook for Sunan Giri. 

This belief about catfish is related to the folklore about the ancestors of the Lamongan people who were saved by catfish. This story comes in various versions. According to one well-known version, the story takes place during the time of Sunan Giri. 

Once upon a time, Sunan Giri was a guest at someone’s house in Karangbinangun. When he returned home, he realized that he had left his keris behind. He asked one of his confidants, Ki Bayapati, to retrieve it. Ki Bayapati came to the house. Not wanting others to know that Sunan Giri had left behind his heirloom, Ki Bayapati took it secretly. 

Unfortunately, he was mistaken for a thief and was chased by the villagers.

To avoid the mob’s wrath, he fled and jumped into a muddy pond containing many catfish in the Glagah area. In this pond he survived because he was covered by catfish.

Saved by the catfish, Ki Bayapati promised that he and his descendants would not eat catfish. 

The story of Ki Bayapati is only folklore, but there is indeed an inscription from the Majapahit era that Lamongan people used to sacred fish. The inscription is thought to date back to the time of King Jayanegara around the 14th century. The inscription states that the people of Lamongan sacred Hyang Iwak (the Fish God). 

This is similar to the worship for Dewi Sri (Goddess of Fertility) in agrarian societies. The ancestors of the Lamongan people sacred the Fish God because they lived along the Bengawan Solo and Bengawan Jero rivers. The river is their source of livelihood.

Until now there are still many Lamongan natives who abstain from eating catfish. One of them is Lamongan Regent Fadeli (deceased). 

Pecel Lele and Soto Ayam Banner

In big cities, pecel lele is often paired with soto ayam Lamongan, making these two menus the signature of Lamongan-owned stalls. So much so, these stalls are easily recognizable just by their distinctive banners.

These banners are better known as “spanduk pecel lele” because not all pecel lele stalls sell chicken soto. 

The pecel lele banner is a product of painting, not printing techniques. They are hand-painted with oil paint on fabric. There are banners that are designed on a computer and then printed on a printing machine. The lettering and images are neater but this type of banner among pecel lele sellers is considered less authentic and less durable. Most of the banners are ordered to painters.

Painting a banner (IG @lek_hartono)

Although hand-painted by different people, the writing on these banners seems to have been done by the same person. The fonts are similar, and even the pictures are similar. 

Painting banners has even become a profession for Lamongan people. Most banner painters come from Sekaran Sub-district, for example in Bulutengger Village and Manyar Village. Bulutengger Village is even known as “Leter Village”. Leter is the local pronunciation of the English word, letter, which refers to the letters on the banners. 

Lamongan migrants who sell pecel lele and soto ayam in various cities usually order banners from Lamongan and send them via expedition services. It is not surprising that pecel lele banners in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, or Papua look similar to those in Jakarta or Surabaya because they are both made by Sekaran people. 

These banners are characterized by the use of bright highlighter colors. The choice of highlighter colors is not solely due to the painter’s taste but rather due to considerations of legibility. 

The street stalls of pecel lele and soto ayam are mostly open at night with fluorescent lighting. The lights are placed inside the stalls. From outside the stall, the letters and images on the banners appear to be illuminated, making it easier for people to recognize these stalls. With just a glance, passers-by will immediately know that the stall is a Lamongan pecel lele stall.

The banners are deliberately painted on cloth because they have to be folded back when the stall is closed. Cloth banners are more flexible than printed banners so they do not get damaged quickly even though they are folded and installed every day. The use of oil paint is intended to make the banners durable even when exposed to rain or splashes of cooking oil.

The emergence of this new profession of banner painter is nothing but a by-product of the chicken soto economy. Soto has become a pillar of Lamongan’s economy, not only for those who are good at cooking or selling, but also for those who are good at painting.

From an economic aspect, soto is a way of life for Lamongan people to deal with limitations. From a social and cultural aspect, soto ayam is a way of life for Lamongan people to respect others with all limitations. 

Lamongan is soto ayam. Soto ayam is Lamongan.

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