Hungry City: Spreading the Flavors of Indonesia, One Table at a Time
Another week she offered nasi campur, curry and vegetables crowded round a heap of rice. Here the curry was beautifully sour from tamarind, over a plank of kingfish. It was flanked by ruffles of kale, a substitute for the cassava leaves she used back in Indonesia, stewed in coconut milk but still bringing a residual brightness; and blocks of fried tofu so engorged with sauce — a flare of long hot peppers, ginger and terasi (shrimp paste) — that when squeezed between the teeth, they rained it down onto the plate like clouds.
Farther up the plate’s circumference were tiny tentacles and curled-up hulls of salted squid, as purple as a bruise, rinsed five times until swollen. The salt was frank, barely tempered by a douse of kecap manis, the Indonesian sweet soy sauce. Last, a hard-boiled egg, peeled and fried, with a whisper-thin golden crust and a green crush of sambal hijau: raw jalapeño, onion and ground anchovies. Ms. Tjahjadi asked, “Are you all right with spicy?” Yes, but it still made me catch my breath.
The food seemed to multiply, as in the parable of the loaves and the fishes; however much I ate, I couldn’t finish it. It cost $10 (cash only, please). Other customers stopped by for lunch to go, or ate from boxes while perched between shelves. As I paid, the woman at the register handed me a branch of longan fruit, the rough shells peeling back to disclose sweet translucent globes, better than any petits fours.
Since July, Ms. Tjahjadi may also be found twice a week making sauces at Kopi Kopi, an Indonesian coffeehouse and wine bar in Greenwich Village opened by Elizabeth Lapadula in 2013. The space is grander than Indo Java’s, with doors framed like a temple entrance and batik pillows on a satin couch. The dining room, tucked in the back, was once what the owner called a ramen speakeasy, hidden behind a sliding bookcase.
Ms. Lapadula, the chef and head barista, grew up in Bogor in West Java and studied chemistry and microbiology; when not in the kitchen, she practices environmental and intellectual-property law. Hoping to evangelize for Indonesian cuisine but sensitive to the tastes of the neighborhood, she limits the use of shrimp paste and keeps the food “light,” as she puts it.
In a number of dishes, I sensed a missing dimension. But some were no less delicious for it, like mie ayam jamur, a pileup of egg noodles, gingery chicken, straw mushrooms and pangsit (won tons, crisp and bubbled), with a cup of heady broth on the side. “Some people dump it all in,” Ms. Lapadula said. “I like to just once in a while dip a spoon.”
Rijsttafel, Dutch for “rice table,” is a buffet for one, with leftovers for nearly three. The plate spills over with airy fritters, fried tofu, hard-boiled eggs lashed with sambal and your choice of ayam bakar Bali, sweet-hot chicken blackened on the grill, or beef rendang — saucier than you might find in Indonesia, because “people like a lot of sauce over the rice,” Ms. Tjahjadi said. (Guilty: I enjoyed sopping it up.)
“If we make it very Indonesian, the market doesn’t want it,” she went on. “Too spicy, too strong.” For that, you will have to seek her out in Elmhurst.
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