Last Saturday I still had a whole hog hangover and had a food tour to lead, so I knew there was no chance I’d be able to attend the Forest Hills Indonesian Food Festival, even though it was practically in my back yard. So I’m very glad that my pal Peter Cucè agreed to do a guest post about it. 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. Take it away Peter . . .
The Queens-based southeast Asian food festivals have been coming thick and fast now that spring has sprung, beginning with the mid-April Songkran New Year festival at the Thai temple in Elmhurst, followed a week later (Sunday April 21st) with the inaugural 2013 date of the monthly outdoor Indonesian food festival at Astoria’s Masjid Al Hikmah, and Myanmar’s Lunar New Year fair rounding out the month.
May hasn’t been slouching in this department either, with this past weekend seeing another Burmese festival, one that happens periodically in the warmer months, at Aviation High School; a one-off Indonesian food festival this past Saturday, a fundraiser for the Roslin Orphanage in Kupang, Indonesia, held at the First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills; and this coming Sunday, the second iteration of the monthly Indonesian mosque festival held in the parking lot behind Astoria’s Masjid Al-Hikmah.
Besides being indoors, compared to the monthly mosque festival, this past weekend’s Indonesian event was conceptually different, because pork was on the menu. Although Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, Christians make up around 10% of the population. The church vendors were mostly Javanese/Chinese, while the people cooking at the mosque tend to be Sumatran, although there are also some Javanese at the mosque and vice versa. This ethnic religious influence reflects on the food available at each event, with the church’s Central Java leanings generally resulting in overall sweeter food, seasoned with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and palm sugar, compared to the mosque, where dishes tend to be spicier and more savory, with flavor enhancers such as shrimp paste. One major exception is the sate padang, a well-known Sumatran dish, which is almost always available at the mosque event and was notably available at the church, as I’ll get into a little more below.
Since there wasn’t anywhere for the participants to do more than the most rudimentary cooking (in actuality just reheating), this event for the most part offered food cooked ahead time and assembled at the church, whereas at the mosque a good portion of the food is cooked from scratch on site.
Once my Indonesian posse and some other friends arrived, we armed ourselves with $20 or so worth of tickets each and spread out, hunting for tasty items and bringing them back to the group for sharing, a useful strategy for trying lots of things without getting full too quickly.
On the side of the dimly lighted, cavernous room opposite the door, one of the first tables was staffed by several generations of women ladling soto babat, a yellow tripe soup with glass noodles, into quart-size plastic containers.
These folks also offered a great wingko babat, chewy squares of coconut and glutinous rice flour, not as hard as the still good version offered at Java Village in Elmhurst, Queens, which are in the more traditional medallion shape.
Near them was Henricus Kusbiantoro, a famous Indonesian designer and his wife, both organizers of the event, who cooked up a fairly authentic nasi goreng babat, beef tripe fried rice served with a slice of tomato and cucumber and garnished with emping, a cracker made from crushed melinjo nuts.
The Kusbiantoros also offered a four-tray combo dish called nasi bogana, the base of which is nasi liwet, rice cooked with bay leaves and turmeric. Neighboring trays held shredded spiced chicken breast cooked with spiced boiled eggs called telur pindang; tofu with chilies, coconut milk, galangal, and turmeric; and finally, a long bean and tempeh dish called oseng tempe kacang panjang. Any or all of these could be chosen to eat with the spiced rice.
Ambar Mardyat, a chef at Kusuka Indonesian Restaurant in Huntingdon, a town in far west Pennsylvania, put together a huge number of items ahead of time and drove many hours to contribute her effort to the fundraiser. She’s pictured above with her daughter Dani.
Possibly deserving best of show honors was Ms. Mardyat’s wonderful sate padang, skewers of beef tongue and muscle meat served with pressed rice cubes called lontong, all slathered with a thick, spicy turmeric sauce, with the only downside being its lukewarm temperature, since it wasn’t freshly grilled.
One entire table also under her care was given over to a variety of snack foods including rare-in-New York City martabak, a heavy, ground-meat filled square covered with folded phyllo-like dough; lumpia (Indonesian spring rolls); risoles (my favorite), fried croquettes delicately coated with breadcrumbs and layered with a cheesy meat and vegetable mixture; and an array of bakwan jagung, fried corn fritters made with scallions. All of these treats are traditionally eaten along with a small green or red chili pepper, taking alternate bites of each.
At the back of the room, Mbak Rin had a table devoted to jajan pasar, a class of sweet snacks made with common ingredients that include gula jawa (palm/tamarind sugar), coconut, and rice flour, usually sold in traditional, provincial markets.
She was giving a cooking demonstration, assembling hers from scratch on the spot, eventually layering palm sugar-sweetened coconut shreds over crumbly, green rice flour pancakes and folding them over before proffering them to onlookers.
Nearby was a table of serabi, thick coconut milk and rice flour pancakes with a beautiful green color that came four to an order and are also considered to be jajan pasar due to the ingredients used.
At purchase time, the woman running the table slathered them with a delicious, not overly sweet durian sauce made with coconut milk and palm sugar. These were one of my favorite things on offer.
One other notable dish, not normally seen in NYC, was asinan, a refreshing, slightly spicy, sweet, vinegary chopped fruit mixture topped with roasted peanuts.
If you feel like you missed out, show up at Masjid Al Hikmah around lunchtime on Sunday and delve into the savory Sumatran offerings.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Cecil Mariani for patiently helping me identify things we ate and applying some context to them for me. Cecil is herself an accomplished Indonesian cook and just graduated from the SVA MFA program in design with a dream to change the Indonesian art world through her non-profit organization, Upacita.