Meet Felipe Rangel, a talented artist who constructs colorful, dramatic vejigante masks. The vejigante is a folkloric figure central to the Puerto Rican Carnival that takes place in Ponce every February. With its characteristic snout, sharp teeth, and multitudes of horns, vejigantes are a distinctive part of the cultural celebration. Much like with the Mardi Gras Indian costumes (you might recall them if you watched Treme), there is tremendous pride in the craft of creating the mask, and Felipe was on hand to show it off at the recent Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas Festival organized by the Museum at Eldridge Street last Sunday.
The festival tents on Eldridge Street drew a diverse crowd
The festival has been a long-standing tradition (this marked its 17th year), although Empanadas were tacked on to the headline only last year to include the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican members. It’s a celebration of the diverse history and makeup of the area, and while Egg Rolls (kosher, of course!), Egg Creams and Empanadas could be purchased for $6, the event went far beyond the otherwise unheard-of combo of cultural delicacies.
The activites at the Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas Festival were seemingly innocuous bits of each culture’s heritage: you could partake in a mah jongg game, watch a demonstration on how to make empanadas, or decorate a yarmulke. You could learn about the Dragon Boat Festival (a Chinese tradition that celebrates a time of protection from evil and disease) and also what it means to hit your dress with a fan at a dance in Puerto Rican culture (“I’m jealous”).
But what made the event special was that it went beyond a mere acceptance or tolerance of another’s culture — it was a sincere expression of appreciation and camaraderie. Chinese girls wore decorated yarmulkes and assisted you with decorating yours. An elderly lady and a young girl designed paper fans at the same table. An ensemble performed traditional Chinese music in the Eldridge Street Synagogue. No boundaries seemed to exist on this small stretch of Eldridge Street on that warm, sunny afternoon.
The Eldgridge Street Synagogue, which serves as an anchor for the festival, is an architectural treasure that has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. Although this year’s festival has come to a close, you can still pay it a visit to check out its many exhibits and artifacts, or you can participate in one of its ongoing public programs like a jazz evening or a walking tour. Visit their website for a calendar of events.
12 Eldridge St
Sunday – Thursday 10 am to 5 pm
Friday 10 am to 3 pm
Pair it with:
A meal from Kopitiam
Since you’re already experiencing a cultural smorgasbord, why not throw something else in the mix? The egg rolls and empanadas have whet your appetite, and now you’re ready to broaden that international palate. So head a few steps east on Canal Street to Kopitiam, a tiny Malaysian cafe offering a bona fide experience with the country’s cuisine. The white coffee has received quite a bit of acclaim in a city where praise isn’t doled out easily. But the food is nothing to scoff at either: the chef and owner hails from Penang, a state known for its food even among food-obsessed Malaysians.
Kopitiam offers a small, well-curated menu. Highlights include nasi lemak, which is a savory dish with coconut rice and a shrimp-chili paste (pictured above), and kaya toast, which is a sweet coconut jam served on bread. I have to confess my descriptions are a little reductive here, but only because the food simply must be experienced. The dishes at Kopitiam are uniquely Malaysian, and my demanding Malaysian palate can tell you that it’s as authentic as it gets. It’s a small space with approximately 5 counter seats. So grab your order to go. Seward Park is around the corner, and there is nothing a little sunshine and Malaysian food can’t fix.
51B Canal St
Tuesday – Friday 10 am to 9 pm (closed 3-4:30 pm)
Saturday 10 am to 9 pm
Sunday 10 am to 7 pm