November 28, 2023

Food Bazaar

Get In My Food Bazaar

In Queens, a Food Bazaar With the Vastness and Variety of Indonesia

Jengkol beans, as fat as silver dollars, bobbing in chile sauce. Jackfruit braised in sticky-sweet soy sauce until it falls apart like pulled pork. Tender slices of beef lung nestled among famously fragrant stink beans. Dishes like these bring Wendy Wong to the New York Indonesian Food Bazaar in Elmhurst, Queens, every month.

On a recent Saturday, she clutched her phone, poring over a wish list for an Indonesian friend’s birthday party later that day, and hopped from stall to stall on the hunt for specialties that rarely make it to the city’s restaurant menus.

A vendor at the Pecel Ndeso stall — which is based in Philadelphia but makes monthly appearances at the New York bazaar — scrutinized Ms. Wong’s list. “We don’t have oseng tempeh today,” she said, pointing Ms. Wong, an Elmhurst local, toward one of the other nine vendors gathered in a church auditorium. “But we have these two,” she added, scooping the rewards into takeout containers as Ms. Wong eyed other vendors to finish her list.

“Sellers here used to only market to Indonesians,” Ms. Wong said, “so they didn’t need any signs. You just knew what the dishes were. Now, with social media, they get a broader audience.”

For one Saturday every month, St. James Episcopal Church becomes New York’s premier destination for Indonesian food. Hundreds of eager eaters come from as far away as Virginia to support their favorite vendors and discover new dishes.

The Indonesian archipelago — which comprises more than 17,000 islands, home to 264 million people — has dozens of distinct regional cuisines. The bazaar is your best bet for sampling them all.

Jeanny and Felix Djunaidi, the owners of Bakso Super Philly, who also make the drive from Philadelphia, specialize in won tons fried into frilly coin purses and basko, a heady noodle soup of sausagelike meatballs. Regulars know to spoon on a fiery homemade sambal, but vendors are all too happy to help newcomers sort out topping confusion.

New York is home to the third-largest Indonesian population in the United States, according to data from the Pew Research Center. At more than 5,000 people, it is surpassed only by communities in Los Angeles and Riverside, Calif. Yet the city has never had more than a handful of Indonesian restaurants, and those that persist leave many in the diaspora unsatisfied.

“It’s much better here,” said Theo Nurtanio, an Indonesian regular who lives nearby in Jackson Heights. “Everything tastes homemade.”

That’s mostly the case. While some of the vendors run catering businesses, none operate restaurants of their own — at least not yet. The bazaar offers enterprising home cooks a testing ground, at a fraction of the cost of renting a table at Smorgasburg, one of the city’s better-known food fairs. In turn, the vendors act as culinary ambassadors, exposing customers to the nuances of foods that are cooked by a quarter of a billion people but have relatively few champions in the United States.

“The only thing Americans might know about Indonesia is Bali,” said Fefe Anggono, who founded the bazaar in 2012 and operates a stall called Taste of Surabaya. “We want to show people everything Indonesia can offer. This bazaar is for everyone — as long as you love Indonesia,” she added with a chuckle.

In 1998, Ms. Anggono was studying Chinese in Taiwan when she left to care for a sister in Colorado who had fallen ill. Back home in Indonesia, a bloody wave of riots had spread across the country, claiming the lives of more than 1,000 people. Indonesians of Chinese ancestry, like Ms. Anggono, became scapegoats for political and anticolonial frustrations, and were targets of physical and sexual assault. When an Indonesian-Chinese friend took her own life after being raped, Ms. Anggono decided to stay in the United States and seek asylum.

Ms. Anggono realized she had a knack for restaurant management, first in Colorado, then after moving to New York in 2000. From 2004 to 2011, she was co-owner of a pan-Asian restaurant in Holtsville, on Long Island, where she experimented with Indonesian offerings like grilled satay skewers and beef rendang. She eventually got a green card, which inspired her to help other Indonesian immigrants navigate the byzantine path to American residency and then citizenship.

“I felt so blessed,” she said. “So now I tell people: ‘In Indonesia, if you have money, you can do anything, you can buy paperwork. But here it’s about the truth. No matter what, you have your rights as a human being.’ ”

Ms. Anggono’s twin passions for Indonesian cooking and American bureaucracy inspired her to start the bazaar. She recruited cooks through the local community and on Facebook, and helped new vendors apply for food-vendor and fire-safety permits.

“Sometimes they get upset with me,” she said with a smirk, “because I make them get all their paperwork. So I tell them, ‘You want to sell food here but not follow the rules?’ You need patience to organize something like this.”

At the bazaar, Ms. Anggono flitted among vendors, helping with logistics and resolving disputes between cooks. Every few feet, there was another friend to catch up with; she discussed coming events with an Indonesian Consulate employee, and introduced a retired ambassador to customers.

In Queens, houses of worship often host neighborhood food events. Not only are they natural community centers, but they also function as sanctuaries from law-enforcement scrutiny — an important protection for amateur cooks of varying immigration statuses and English-language abilities.

For more than 10 years, another Indonesian bazaar has also operated in Astoria, Queens, in the parking lot of Masjid Al-Hikmah, the first Indonesian mosque in the United States. There, the food must be strictly halal, and the irregular schedule is subject to the weather. Ms. Anggono, who is Christian, wanted a location available year-round where halal and nonhalal vendors could, for a modest fee of $150, cook side by side.

Ms. Anggono would like to open an Indonesian restaurant of her own someday, and dreams of a permanent food hall devoted to regional Indonesian cuisine. Her new project for now is a nonprofit group called Indonesian Culinary Enthusiasts, whose members meet in the church on bazaar days. Programming is still in development, but will include classes in English, yoga, aerobics and computer programming.

Ms. Anggono also coordinates an annual food festival at the Indonesian Consulate in Manhattan, and in April she will help host Tempeh Day, an event celebrating Indonesia’s signature fermented soybean cake.

She buys her unpasteurized tempeh from a small Indonesian producer in Philadelphia that supplies several bazaar vendors. At her Taste of Surabaya stall, she begins her oseng tempeh by stir-frying the dense cake with garlic, ginger, makrut lime leaves and lemongrass, then adds a glaze of molasses-like sweet soy sauce.

“People are scared of tempeh,” Ms. Anggono said. “It looks strange and is made from fungus. We want to show people that it’s not scary, that it’s a healthy, special food from Indonesia.”

New York Indonesian Food Bazaar, monthly at St. James Episcopal Church, 84-07 Broadway, Elmhurst, Queens. Future events are announced on Facebook; the next bazaar is March 7.