When we would return from school holidays while I was growing up in Malaysia, some of my friends would render tales of surfboarding in California or chasing pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I don’t know if we couldn’t afford it, or if my father simply didn’t find the travel and/or destinations appealing, but we never visited the western hemisphere. Our family vacations took us to closer locales like Thailand and Indonesia. There’s a lot of overlap between Indonesian and Malaysian culture — we share similarities in language, food and beliefs — but Indonesia is much larger and more diverse. The archipelago of over 18,000 islands has hundreds of ethnic groups and distinct dialects, so it manages to feel familiar and exotic at the same time. Visiting the Indonesian Street Festival this past weekend was a fun return to that very same intoxicating combination.
The event is a recent, but welcome, addition to New York City’s already diverse calendar: this year’s Indonesian Street Festival was only its sophomore effort. Presented by the Indonesian Consulate General in New York, the stretch of 68th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues that it calls home was transformed into a festive street market that would be a familiar sight in many Asian cities. Your senses immediately go into overdrive as a multitude of sights, smells and sounds envelop you. Stalls offering delicious regional delicacies lined the southern side of the street. A stage erected in front of the consulate’s building became home to traditional dances and music performances, as well as fashion shows from Indonesian fashion designers.
In Malay the phrase “balik kampung” means returning to one’s hometown, which could be a small, rural village as much as a bustling, urban center. It wasn’t necessarily where you were born, it’s where you belonged. It was common for my late grandmother to consider someone likable or trustworthy simply because he was from our kampung. “He’s good people,” she would say, knowing nothing else about the fellow. At the Indonesian Street Festival, stalls were set up by province, and I noticed a similar sense of affiliation. Indonesian guests, some dressed in their finest batik, would greet the vendors with the kind of familiarity reserved for family, and they would consume the delicacies in the thoroughfare as if hanging out in a friend’s backyard. And for guests hailing from other places, we got to travel to the different territories by sampling the distinct wares offered.
I would’ve made the trek out to the Indonesian Street Festival simply for the promise of the food. And I wasn’t alone: I watched New York City foodies line up for satay, mee goreng, curry, and other amazing delicacies in suffocating 85-degree weather (which, I suppose, lends to the authenticity of the event since Indonesia has warm, tropical weather throughout the year). If you’re fortunate enough to have visited the lovely country, or to have made friends with its affable people, then this fun event would have functioned as a pleasant reminder of its charms. If you haven’t, it’s time to rectify that. Unwrap that banana leaf and eat those pepes.
Pair it with:
A visit to Tuson Sate
If you did it right, then you would have sufficiently stuffed your face at the Indonesian Street Festival and gone home happy. Hence we have no true food pairing to recommend for this activity. However, we wanted to single out a vendor from the festival that we feel warrants a second glance. Tuson Sate has been selling satay at a mosque in Queens since 1999, and has recently expanded its presence in Manhattan by setting up shop at the Hester Street Fair and Bryant Park. The satay, pictured above, was tender and flavorful and well worth the long wait. It’s a finalist for the 2016 Vendy Awards, so we may be its newest fans, but we’re definitely not its earliest. Visit their Instagram page for schedules and locations.