People who are familiar with festival-style Indonesian food in New York City have probably visited the outdoor food bazaar held in the rear parking lot of Astoria’s Masjid Al-Hikmah, which usually begins with the first warm weather in April and runs through October, or possibly one of the one-off events such as 2013’s Forest Hills Indonesian Food Bazaar. Longtime Masjid Al Hikmah attendees were dismayed last year when the mosque didn’t manage to put together an event until September 21st and then tacked on two more in quick succession, October 12th and October 26th. I attended them all, of course.
The innaugural edition of the City Blessing Church Indonesian Food Bazaar, which is being planned as an (at minimum) monthly event, took place on the last Saturday in February, 2015 in Woodside, Queens. The organizer, Fefe Anggono, owned and managed a restaurant in Long Island for seven years and started this event as a way to not only bring attention to the church and its rental space, but also to provide an outlet for vendors left out in the cold by the mosque’s inconsistent event-holding policies.
To the casual observer, unfamiliarity with cuisine and culture, combined with the environmental difference (indoor vs. outdoor), and perceived religious overtones (mosque vs. church), might give the impression that the events were vastly different, but in fact, out of the 10 tables at the City Blessing Church bazaar, eight of them were regular mosque vendors, with two church regulars rounding out the mix. Ms. Anggono hopes to increase the table count going forward, and while she wants to keep the Indonesian fare at around 80% of the overall total, she is open to any food purveyor applying for a spot at the monthly event.
Ms. Anggono is from Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia and the capital of East Java. In fact, nearly all of the vendors are from East Java, but that’s not to say that the food is uniform across tables—while there is some dish overlap, there is also plenty of variety to keep both initiates and newcomers happy. Outsiders aware that Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, at around 87%, with Christians making up the largest minority group at 7%, might assume that this would in some ways be effected through the food culture, but in actuality, the only real difference is the non-use of pork in Muslim recipes—nearly all other food differences are regional/ethnic.
One of the first tables up and operating, Dapur Tios (#6), was also the most professional-looking, with a printed sign hanging behind their stall advertising their wares. Their main offering was bubur ayam kuah kuning (chicken rice porridge), pure Indonesian comfort food that’s often eaten for breakfast, that they spooned out of a large pot and covered with garlic crackers and a large dollop of sambal kacang, spicy peanut sauce. Adding sambal kacang is non-standard and Indonesians I consulted for help in photo identification were initially thrown off the scent by this delicious red herring. My group devoured this in short order and then looked around for further conquests.
Unlike the outdoor bazaar at the Masjid Al Hikmah, where there might be as many as three sate vendors, here there was only one, Tunos Sate (#10), with a line that formed before the sate was even ready and continued for the duration. They were cooking their lamb, beef, and chicken sate at a sidewalk grill and ferrying batches to their table, conveniently placed adjacent to the bazaar entrance. Sate is one of the most accessible Indonesian foods—pretty much anyone can enjoy meat on a stick, especially when covered with spicy peanut sauce. The traditional accompaniment for sate is lontong, compressed rice cubes served cold—not the most appealing item for most Westerners but helpful for flavor balance.
Ms. Anggono herself holds down table #1, offering up a rotating variety of pre-made Surabayan specialties. My posse and I particularly enjoyed her styrofoam-packed nasi pecel empal. Nasi Pecel is a Javanese rice dish with steamed vegetables and spicy peanut sauce along with sambal goreng tempe (thinly cut tempeh, deep fried then stirred with sambal) and rempeyak kacang (a roughly formed chip made of rice flour, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaf and peanut); Empal indicates the addition of sweet and spicy fried beef.
Next to Ms. Anggono’s table is Bing (#2), the only other non-mosque vendor, run by a sweet older woman who serves up a stellar assortment of homemade leaf-wrapped rice snacks and sweet treats along with some full blown food items such as nasi rames (photo up top). We ended up trying nearly everything she had to offer. For many Western folk, for whom rice is just rice, the variety of different rice preparations can be a bit bewildering, but I recommend using Bing as an entree into the Indonesian rice snack universe. For around $2 a piece you can pick up a couple of different types of bakcang (pyramid-shaped packages of either glutinous or steamed rice and chicken wrapped with bamboo leaf and tied with different colored ribbons to indicate variety) or lemper ayam (a rectangle of glutinous rice wrapped in a banana leaf and filled with chicken, but with a consistency more akin to a tuna fish sandwich rather than the rough cut bits in the bakcang).
Warung Bu Marti’s (Table #3) Bakso—another Indonesia-wide staple soup—is a good introduction to the genre, with its eponymous pressed beef balls presiding over a tasty beef broth and a hearty helping of crispy shallots, but it suffered from badly fried wontons and insipid yellow noodles. This didn’t stop us from scarfing down the entire dish (sans wontons).
Table #4 (Kedai Mpok Hanum) was late to the party and a line formed immediately for their wares, one which I was lucky enough to be near the head of when they appeared. Despite insane fullness, we doubled down and consumed a plate of their Gado gado—boiled vegetables including jackfruit, topped with yet more (addictive) peanut sauce, although with a different recipe than some other dishes (ground peanuts, palm sugar, chillies, shrimp paste, tamarind, and lime juice) and the slightly bitter crackers known as emping, made from melinjo nuts.
Bowls were apparently at a premium at this point in the event, but the organizer was nice enough to procure a non-styrofoam one from the church’s cafe for us so that we could be first to try Mpok Hanum’s soto mie, a hearty beef-based soup swimming with chunks of beef, glistening hunks of tendon, vermicelli, and tomatoes, smothered with bean sprouts and cabbage, and topped off with a fried spring roll.
If the Gado Gado ladies (photo) who usually occupy the rear of the Masjid Al Hikmah parking lot ever come to City Blessing Church with their ground-to-order peanut sauce, adjusted for spiciness based on the customer’s desire, there will be no contest in that category, but the Mpok Hanum version is still good, and their soto mie takes top marks.
Small, circular standing height tables run down the center of the hall, and the front cafe area also provides seating, along with a small menu of drinks: water, coffee, soda, hot ginger drink, and es teler, a cold fruit concoction that Westerners might classify as a dessert but is considered a beverage by Indonesians. Other vendors offer drinks but we didn’t try too many, only sampling the turmeric drink (seemingly cheap at $5, but a bit harsh and chalky) and the es doger from Dapur Tios (#6).
For now at least, barring additions, Ms. Anggono plans to keep the vendor table order the same, so hopefully the following diagram and listing will work as a rough guide to where to find what for future bazaar-goers.
Stall Name, Vendor Specialties
1. Fefe Anggono: Surabayan specialities, sells different things every time, tahu campur, lontong mie, srikaya ketan, sop buntut, lontong cap gomek
2. Bing: nasi campur, lemper ayam, bakcang, ongol ongol (brown sweet thing), dodol, tahu rek, wjik, pastel
3. Warung Bu Marti: bakso, soto mie, sate padang, sambal teri goreng, wajik, kue tok
4. Kedai Mpok Hanum: gado gado, empek empek, tempe, bakso
5. Rum Cendol: es cendol, ice coffee, onde onde
6. Dapur Tios: bubur ayam, tape, es doger, gudeg, rendang, combro
7. Life Insurance
8. Julio: empanadas (not Indonesian)
9. Umak Umik Susan: gudeg, kue lumpur, lupis, pepes kian bakar, rendang jengkol, lapis legit, gulai cumi cumi, serabi nangka
10. Tunos Sate:beef, lamb, chicken. Also rangin (chicken dumpling)
A second Indonesian food bazaar will be held on March 28, 2015. There’s a Facebook Event if you’d like to keep apprised of updates. Same time, same location. Deepest thanks to Fefe Anggono, Adithya Pratama, Mel Harjono, and Leili Huzaibah for help in writing this article. Photos by Premshree Pillai and Peter Cucè.
Peter Cucè is a food-obsessed coffee lover who intermittently chronicles New York City cafe culture via a variety of internet outlets. He has eaten his way through nearly every cuisine available locally and beyond and is now systematically working his way through regional Chinese and Korean food in Flushing and Sunset Park and cataloging his efforts via Instagram. You can also catch Peter on Twitter @petekachu.