Searching for Soup.

One of the hardest things about moving to Libya was the food. Okay, so the scenario with the goat in the basement, and the lack of a vehicle with a 2 year old and a three week old baby were a pain in the bum, but the goat disappeared and we eventually purchased a car. The food issue continued.

Don’t get me wrong, I love humous and lamb, and one of my favourite dishes is Libyan soup, but in 2002 trying to buy a curry paste or a particular Asian cuisine was almost impossible. Our trips to Malta always involved a freezer bag and a extra suitcase that came home bulging with supplies.

We’d arrived in Libya after a long stint in Asia and in that time we’d become almost dependent on a weekly curry. We’d been incredibly spoilt to have the worlds best housekeeper while we lived in Jakarta. Yanti was a women who somehow managed to make Nasi Goreng appear out of nowhere, I swear our refrigerator could have a carrot and an onion and she would somehow manage to feed ten people. To this day I’ve never been able to recreate her Soto Ayam (Indonesian Chicken Soup).

I’d cheated in Kuala Lumpur by using the “Indofood” mix, but without the fresh supplies there was nothing available to me in Libya to recreate the flavour. My days of Soto Ayam appeared to be over. It wasn’t that I mourned the food, I mourned the memory of it. In the same way that the smell of a tuna mornay can have me back sitting in my parent’s lounge room in my netball uniform, watching an episode of Dallas. The smell of Soto Ayam will immediately take me back to Yanti standing in the kitchen with a mortar and pestle giggling away at the first little traveler and I playing a game of hide and seek. Soto Ayam had been a staple of my second pregnancy, I couldn’t imagine not having it through my third. Ridiculous, I know.

From Libya we moved on to Calgary, two weeks on from our arrival we decided to go on a food hunt. The first stop was Chinatown – no luck. We then headed to the South East and found a strip mall with an Asian Grocer. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that when I found the box of Indofood there were tears. I stood looking at the packet and all of the familiar names that surrounded it. Nasi Goreng, Beef Rendang, Gado Gado – little flashes of familiar faces, dinners and friends flickered through my memory.

Last week as I wandered through Chinatown, I found myself searching through the boxes of Indofood. I wasn’t having any luck and when the assistant walked by he was able to tell me they were out of Soto Ayam.

“Are you sure?” I was desperate, we’re on our last packet in Doha.

A woman standing at the cash register took at look at my pitiful display and yelled across the supermarket “look in the box on the floor”. There it was, at our feet, a entire box of Soto Ayam. The little travelers raced off to find clear noodles and fried onion, I said thank you to the woman at the cash register a few extra times more than were comfortable. I know this because the first little traveler told me to stop being so embarrassing.

One day I’ll learn how to make a proper Soto Ayam without the help of Indofood, but in the meantime finding that yellow packet in supermarkets around the world is just enough to take me back. That familiar yellow packet can have me in a kitchen in Jakarta, a house in Malaysia, and standing with tears in my eyes in a supermarket in Calgary. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the actual food. It’s about a time, a place and something you’re just not ready to give up.

Do you have a dish or a type of food that you’re not willing to let go? Something that triggers a memory of a time gone by?

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  1. I’ve only been cooking Indian food properly for a could of years ago now, and Thai food for even less time. Already I can’t imagine not having it. Our local Asian supermarket has just closed. Being on a rock in the north Atlantic (the Shetland Islands) I can appreciate the joy of finding just what you need in the shops. I’ve learned to make my own Thai pastes – what you can get in Tesco doesn’t come close. I grow my own chillis and Thai basil.

    Whenever we have a family gathering, I cook huge vats of curry, of one type or another. Couldn’t live without it now.

    Now excuse me, I must go and find out about Soto Ayam. Sounds wonderful!

  2. I love your tales so much. xx

    • Tuna mornay takes me back to my Grannies. Most food of my Mum’s takes me back to a 1970’s kitchen with a bit of Helen Reddy on the radio. Scampi tails and fresh crab takes me home to the south coast of England and my Daddy. xx

  3. Five minutes before reading your blog I was thinking of my housekeeper in Jakarta and thinking how much I miss her cooking. She was amazing and had the biggest heart… we miss her most when we think about Jakarta, then close behind is nasi goreng and chicken satays.
    Im always hunting the asian sections and markets in every city I go to for our favourite sauces and mixes. Plus they always come in the big bottles if you find them in the asian supermarkets compared to the small ones in the normal grocery store.
    Enjoy your soto ayam:-)

  4. Does this sound like the soup you used to get (I’m so intrigued now that I really want to try it) I think you can get almost all of the ingredients here in Doha.

  5. I can so relate to this! Whenever we visit my family in the US for too long, my kids are begging me to make some “real” Asian food. And finding the right ingredients in a small town in the midwest is a bit difficult. I think I need to just pack me some curry mixes the next time…

  6. Ah…One of the things I’m going to miss the most from my life in Vienna, now that we are moving, is the matcha latte (Japanese green tea) I buy every single day from the little store next to my home. It’s not just about the taste – to which I am addicted – but also very much about the ritual. Like you did with Indofood, I am taking with me some serious supplies of matcha powder, which will hopefully last until my next trip back to Vienna 🙂

  7. Anonymous says

    Well for dinner tonight in Doha, we had bangers, mash and gravy – and they were real pork sausages too. It was lovely.
    I’ve found it so hard shopping in Doha as you don’t seem to be able to do all the shopping in one supermarket (well apart from Megamart but can’t afford to go there all the time!)

  8. Martha Zeeman says

    I miss Chicken Rice from Singapore. We tried to make it ourselves and just didn’t get it so we finally got someone from Singapore to pack the paste in their suitcase on a trip to the states. I think they bought everything the store had so we should be good for awhile. We also miss good dumplings. Hard to find in the midwest!

  9. I thrive on bumbu-bumbu Indofood. Now there is another brand called Munik. A bit more expensive but just as good if not better than Indofood for some dishes. Their sotomie is almost as good as the abang-abang in Indo.There is nothing like eating the real thing in Indo though but ’till then, Indofood and Munik are lifesavers.

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