It’s been a big week for Ms. Tjahjadi as The New York Times called my dear friend Chef Dewi in last week’s Hungry City. Chef Dewi formerly of Java Village now cooks at Indo Java a small Indonesian grocery store in Elmhurst, Queens. Every Tuesday afternoon you can stop by for lunch, usually with a choice of a dish or two, served up by Dewi. This pop-up, affectionately called Warung Selasa (Tuesday “Food Stall”), is perhaps the best way to experience Indonesian food in New York, according my local Indonesian food guru Dan Hill who was kind enough to interview Chef Dewi between bites of his bakso mangkok.
When did you start cooking?
I started cooking from home in New York in 2003.
You didn’t cook in Indonesia before you moved here?
No, never. I worked as a secretary. Cooking wasn’t a hobby of mine. I learned how to cook when I moved to New York. I helped my mother cook at home as a child, but that was it.
Do you remember your favorite cooking of your mother’s when you were a child?
No, but I learned from my Mom that if I wanted to eat something, I had to make it from scratch. I had to prepare all the ingredients and cook everything. So I remember the cooking process, but I never cooked. For example, if I wanted to make lontong sayur. I would have to make the lontong by cleaning the rice and making the lontong. The vegetables I would have to cut, like the chayote . . . and at that time there wasn’t grated coconut, so at that time we had to grate the whole coconut by ourselves. So everything had to be done from the beginning.
So you knew how to do all these things, but you didn’t like cooking?
No, I didn’t like it. I liked making cake. I liked baking, but I never did that either! [laughs]
So how did you learn how to cook in New York?
Maybe it’s better that you ask me why I started cooking. At that time, I already had my first baby, and I put her in daycare. So, after I got my salary, and then paid for the babycare, I got for a day only $19. A day! I think it’s nothing. At the time, metrocards were $1.50. So I thought $19, but I have to leave the house, and I worked for 7 hours,but I couldn’t leave my daughter at babycare for only 7 hours, it had to be an hour earlier and later, so I had to put her there for 9 hours, and then I only get $19. And then I thought…well before, at the church, I did catering, but it was only at the church, I wasn’t selling anything. So at that time, after I had the baby, I opened a ‘canteen’, but from home. I did that for 4 years.
So after that, how did you learn how to cook?
At that time I don’t think there was youtube. Well, I mean, maybe there was youtube, but I never knew about it. If I did, maybe I’d be a much better cook! I mean, I could have learned from using that. At that time, I just called my mom and asked how to cook things like opor (type of curry), whatever the spices were, I would take notes. Yeah, so I took notes from what my Mom told me.
So, first the church, then four years catering, and after that Java Village?
No, we had ICC at that time, Indonesian Community Center. It was on Broadway, now it is Family Dental. We had that place for about three years. After that, we had Indo Java, after the ICC closed. So because we could not have two businesses together, the store and then the food, we made it separate, so we opened Indo Java for the groceries first, and one year later, we opened Java Village.
How about ‘Warung Selasa’ at Indo Java, what is the story behind that?
After Java Village closed, so many people were asking me things you know. And some of them were missing the food, because I’m from Surabaya, and people from Surabaya still loved my food. And there were so many questions: “When are you going to open again, Why did you have to close?” Something like that, and after that Elvi [who works at Indo Java) asked the inspector if we have like a small gathering for food, is it allowed? And then the inspector said, “If you got the license for the kitchen you can have it. So that’s why we made the kitchen the way the health department wanted, the three sink compartment, and whatever they wanted, so we built the kitchen there. And after that, we started Warung Selasa.
What’s your most popular dish?
I did the bubur ayam (rice porridge with fried chicken) many times in the winter. So the most popular dishes before were bubur ayam and bakso , meatball soup. But now it’s summertime.
What’s a difficult Indonesian dish to make?
I think each dish has its own difficult part. But, I stopped cooking grilled chicken, because my house had a lot of smoke! Every time! [laughs] Before I did that many times. People said my grilled chicken is very good, but now I’ve stopped cooking it.
Are there Indonesian ingredients that you can’t find in New York City?
A few, kencur (a type of galangal) is difficult to find.
Difficult or impossible?
Very difficult, they sell it sometimes on 74th St. in Jackson Heights
So normally you don’t cook with it?
We have to use it, so that’s why we use the powder, but it’s totally different. And then the daun salam (Indonesian bay leaf) that we have here is the dried one, but the real one is different. And the lime leaf, it actually has a fruit (kaffir lime), a small lemon, but we cannot find it. There’s a lot of that in Florida.
Do you think Indonesian food will become more popular in the U.S.?
I think the Indonesian food is like the, as I know, the most yummy food, because we use a lot of spice, but we don’t have too many restaurants,that’s why we a lot of people haven’t tried it.
Thai food is so popular with Westerners, why isn’t Indonesian food like that?
The first is, there are a lot of Thai restaurants, like Japanese restaurants too. The second one is the Indonesian [culture] is not too popular compared with the Japanese or Thai. Sometimes, people think Indonesia is in Bali, a part of Bali. Until now, Indonesia has been popular more for negative things.