CAPITAL CULTURE: The soup Obama loved as a child
WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama may have carried a message of unity and tolerance during his visit last week to Indonesia, but it was his love of meatball soup that got the local headlines.
"Bakso, nasi goreng ... semuanya enak!" or "Meatball soup, fried rice ... it's all delicious!" Obama said during a state dinner in Jakarta. The president spent several years of his childhood in the country.
Bakso, a savory soup of meatballs and noodles often garnished with bok choy, wontons, tofu, crisp fried shallots and hard-boiled egg, is Indonesia's national street food, a go-to dish sold from pushcarts to hungry students, midnight revelers and just about anybody who wants a satisfying snack any time of day.
"When people hang out at night and they feel hungry, they go for bakso," says Djoko Supatmono, executive chef at Satay Junction, an Indonesian restaurant in New York.
Like many dishes that bubble up through the masses, bakso has endless variations. The meatballs -- which vary in size from golf balls to tennis balls -- can be made with beef, chicken, pork or even fish. Ditto for the stock. The noodles can be made from mung bean starch, rice or wheat.
"This soup takes on many guises, but it always has meatballs, it always has noodles, it always has broth," says Ken Woytisek, chef instructor in Asian cuisines at the Culinary Institute of America's St. Helena, Calif., campus. "It's really a multicultural society, so there are lots of variations. But it's mainly the meat in the meatball that changes." For instance, Muslims, who form the majority in Indonesia, do not eat pork.
Like most street food, bakso has an air of mystery. The soup and the noodles probably originated in China, but the meatball, Woytisek says, may have come from the Dutch, who colonized Indonesia in the 19th century. And then there's the fact that it's street food.
"While it's generally accepted that meat, in some form, is involved in the balls, the rest is unclear," says James Oseland, editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine, and author of "Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore." "Frankly, I don't know what goes into them, and probably we're better off not knowing. It's like the hot dog."
Meatball soups are found throughout southeast Asia, but aficionados like Oseland especially prize bakso. "The Indonesian version really does tend to be the king, the real granddaddy of all of the southeast Asian beef ball brethren," he says. "It's the whole idea of Asian beef balls taken to a higher realm. They're just better tasting."
But even Indonesians split hairs. "People will take you to task if you say 'I really like this vendor,'" Woytisek says. "They'll say 'No, no! You have to go this vendor.' They never tire of arguing over who's got the best."
But what are the criteria? Al dente noodles and perfect meatballs.
"What makes a great bakso is a springy versus rubbery ball," Oseland says. "And there's some sort of gentle spicing. There's always this perfect balance between the spicing and the meat that separates the good ones from the mediocre."
The classic condiment used to flavor bakso is sambal, a thin paste made from ground chilies, vinegar and salt. It is widely available in the ethnic aisles of large grocers.
Start to finish: 1 hour
For the meatballs:
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon diced shallot
1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, finely chopped
1 egg white
2 tablespoons sugar
Kosher salt and ground white pepper, to taste
1/2 crushed ice
5 tablespoons cornstarch
2 quarts chicken broth
For the soup:
14-ounce package egg noodles
1 head bok choy, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
3 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, finely chopped
3 tablespoons soy sauce
Kosher salt, to taste
2 tablespoons chopped celery
4 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
Sambal, to taste
To make the meatballs, in a small skillet over medium, heat the oil. Add the garlic and shallot and saute until golden and aromatic. Transfer to a food processor, then add the chicken, egg white and sugar. Process until well ground, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper, then transfer to a bowl and place in the freezer for 15 minutes.
Transfer the chilled mixture to a cutting board. Add the crushed ice and cornstarch, then knead the mixture for 5 minutes.
Using 2 spoons or an ice cream scoop, form the mixture into 20 tablespoon-size balls. Set aside.
In a large saucepan, heat the chicken broth. Add the meatballs, working in batches if necessary. Cook until the meatballs are firm and read 165 F at the center, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the meatballs to a bowl. Cover to keep warm. Keep the broth warm over low heat.
To make the soup, bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the egg noodles and cook until al dente according to package directions. Drain, then cover and set aside.
Meanwhile, bring a second saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the bok choy and blanch until just tender, about 1 to 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a plate. Cover and set aside.
Use a mortar and pestle or a knife to mash the garlic and ginger to a paste.
In a medium skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the garlic-ginger paste and saute until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add the chicken and soy sauce, then saute until cooked through, about 2 minutes. Season with salt.
Divide the noodles between the serving bowls, topping them with some of the bok choy and sauteed chicken. Ladle hot chicken broth into each bowl, then divide the meatballs among the bowls. Garnish with celery, hard-boiled eggs and sambal.