Uniting the Cultures of Indonesia through Food

  • Chicken sate at the Indonesian Food Bazaar in Elmhurst (Photos by Caroline Shin for Voices of NY)
On a hot, humid recent Saturday at the St. James Episcopal Church, about a hundred hungry guests, mostly Indonesian, roamed a food oasis of chicken satay skewers, boiled eggs in spicy red sauce, and a pink rose syrup and avocado drink with chia seeds.

These and many more dynamic flavors were served up at the Indonesian Food Bazaar, the second of the summer at the church in Elmhurst, Queens, where many Indonesians live. Event organizer Fefe Anggono strives to make the Food Bazaar represent the astounding diversity of her native country. The world’s fourth most populated and the largest Islamic nation (86 percent Muslim), according to the Indonesian Embassy, Indonesia sprawls across 17,000 islands, hosts over 300 ethnicities and 580 languages and dialects, and once accommodated “Java Man,” the nickname given to early human fossils found on the island of Java. “There were Christian, Muslim and Buddhist vendors at the bazaar today. Native and Chinese Indonesians, too,” said Anggono, who hails from Surabaya in Java.

Ethnic Eats-04New York is home to people from many of the myriad islands and cultures of Indonesia with 8,000 Indonesians, according to the Indonesian Consulate, and over 70,000 Indonesians in the U.S., according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The Census also reports that a surge in Indonesian immigration occurred in the 1990s amid political, financial and social turmoil that erupted into brutal street riots against the ethnic and religious minority Chinese and Christians in Indonesia.

And for Anggono, an ethnic Chinese Christian Indonesian who came to the U.S. in 1998, after witnessing the rape of her friend during one of these violent street riots, this gathering struck a special nerve. For her, it is more about uniting the Indonesian community than it is about the food. “That’s why I coordinate this event,” she said. “I don’t want them thinking, ‘Hey, I’m Chinese; I’m a Muslim. No. Just one thing they need to remember: We are from Indonesia. And we need to be proud of it.”

It was apparent that Anggono had achieved her goal of bringing the community together.

More than 500 Christian, Muslim and Buddhist vendors and guests, coming from New Jersey, Manhattan, and Flushing and originally hailing from disparate subcultures of Indonesia, mingled among 20 different tables dishing out regional delicacies.

“I want people to work together as a team,” Anggono said. “I don’t care where they come from. They just have to love to cook.”

Reviana Hadinata showed off her regional pride and Sundanese ethnicity through her rice and fried beef. “These dishes are authentically from West Java Banten,” she said, as she explained some of the regional culinary differences that make up Indonesian cuisine. “Ours is salty, spicy,” and pointing to her friend’s dishes to her right, she said, “And her food is from the eastern side, and is more mild and sweet.”

Pork, which is rarely eaten in most parts of Indonesia for religious reasons, made an appearance at the Food Bazaar at real estate manager Donald Tampubolon’s table. He identifies as a member of the “Batak tribe” from North Sumatra, where the majority are Christians. “And that’s why we eat pork,” he said. “I’ve been going to food bazaars for over 14 years, and I’ve never seen any Indonesian food festivals with Batak dishes.”

The Masjid Al-Hikmah mosque in Astoria and the Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church in the Flatiron district also organize Indonesian food festivals, but Tampubolon praised the broader scope of Anggono’s event, for which he really strove to achieve authenticity in his offerings.

“It was hard to get some ingredients because I want to make it authentic – the way my grandma did it.” He explained that the trademark ingredient in Batak foods is the Andaliman pepper, which grows only in Indonesia and has a mouth-numbing effect similar to that of the Sichuan pepper. So he asked a friend to bring it over to him. “That damn Andaliman flew over 29 hours to get to this place.”

Home chefs like Tampubolon, as well as established businesses such as Helen’s Kitchen, Bing, Kopi Kopi, and Tuson Sate, which is a finalist for the 2016 Vendy Awards, had tables at the Food Bazaar. Anggono, herself, is no stranger to the restaurant business. A veteran of the now-closed upscale Chinese restaurant and celebrity hotspot, Mr. K’s, Anggono owned her own restaurant on Long Island for seven years. To her, the Food Bazaar also represents a business opportunity for members of the Indonesian community. “Because not many people can have a restaurant,” she explained. “Many people cook at home, but don’t know how to sell.” The Food Bazaar Anggono organized gave vendors that opportunity.

And interest among chefs is growing. Anggono had to turn down vendors for the first time since she started the Food Bazaar in Woodside four years ago, a time when she was disappointed to see many of her fliers in the trash. This time around, she received 30 applications.

“Thank God it’s working,” she said. “Hopefully it gets bigger and bigger.”

Anggono is helping organize the second annual Indonesian Street Festival, put together by the Indonesian Consulate of New York and the Indonesian Street Festival 2016, and commemorating Indonesia’s independence on Saturday, Aug. 27, on East 68th Street in Manhattan. She is planning the next Indonesian Food Bazaar in Elmhurst for September, and hopes eventually to run it monthly during the summer.

Caroline Shin is a 2016 Tow-Knight fellow, video journalist, and the creator of the Cooking with Granny YouTube series where she cooks with NY grandmothers across cultures. She grew up in Flushing, Queens.

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