I’m not the slightest bit religious, but I have the occasional fantasy about what heaven might look like when I die. If heaven exists, I’m pretty sure that it would have three things: friendly people, pleasant weather, and an endless supply of spicy food, preferably cooked in coconut milk. It pains me to use such a silly cliché, but I think I found my personal version of heaven in NYC. In a fenced-in parking lot. Behind a mosque.
And really, where else would you find heaven besides a parking lot in Astoria?
Roughly once a month during the summer, several dozen Indonesians set up an Indonesian food bazaar behind Masjid Al-Hikmah in Astoria. It’s like a giant bake sale, except that there’s a wide range of foods, including entrees, soups, desserts, salads, fried snacks, and Indonesian smoothies (made from coconut milk and either fruit or avocado). Stupidly, I went by myself, which meant that I was obligated to massively overeat if I wanted to even begin to scratch the surface of the awesomeness offered at the bazaar.
I warmed up with a pair of insanely delicious appetizers, starting with a chicken-stuffed fritter (gorengan, $1), made from a dough that reminded me of the insanely soft, flat rice noodles that you can get at Chinese dim sum places. I also inhaled something resembling an Indonesian tamale: a delicious, banana-wrapped cylinder of minced chicken surrounded by sticky rice (rice cooked in coconut milk), also just $1. Both were so good—especially when dabbed with spicy-sweet
sambal sauce—that I vowed to eat everything I possibly could at the bazaar. I was madly in love with this parking lot.
I moved on to an entrée-sized plate of nasi rendang, one of the national dishes of Indonesia, consisting of a massive cone of rice accompanied by meat and vegetables ($7); I selected a firm-but-oddly-tender hunk of beef jerky coated in crushed red peppers, along with collard greens stewed in coconut milk. The friendly Indonesian lady at that particular stall noticed the excited grin on my face (ever look at a dog just before he’s about to get fed? I looked like that, only slightly porkier), and added a scoop of beef curry to my plate, just so I could try it. I love you, kind Indonesian lady. And I definitely loved all of your food, especially the fiery beef and coconut-ized greens.
After two appetizers and a heaping plate of rice, greens, and beef, I should have stopped eating. But there were another dozen food stalls at the bazaar, all of which were staffed by friendly, smiling Indonesians who looked like they knew how to handle themselves in a kitchen. So I kept eating: another fried appetizer filled with beef and sweet peppers; an amazing “Indonesian salad” with peanuts, apples, pineapple, and finely shredded coconut in a spicy tamarind sauce; and a bowl of green rice-flour pancakes swimming in a very gently sweetened sauce of coconut milk and palm syrup.
Even after all of that, I still kept being drawn in by smiling Indonesians, standing behind tables bearing still more treats to be tried. I took home four of the delicious Indonesian “tamales” (chicken or beef surrounded by coconut milk-soaked rice and wrapped in banana leaves); I bought several more fried appetizers, one of which was a tasty ball of minced tofu, shrimp, and chicken, accompanied by a vicious little hot pepper; a pudding made from seaweed, chocolate, and coconut milk; some edamame-filled dumplings steamed in coconut milk; and something described as “Indonesian sushi”—delicious squares of coconut rice filled with spiced minced chicken.
The final score: I ate four appetizers, a full entrée, and two desserts before leaving the bazaar… and then I took seven appetizers, a salad, and another dessert home with me. I spent a grand total of $27.50, and probably bought enough food for three or four people with normal appetites. Much of the food was spicy, and nearly all of it featured some sort of coconut or coconut milk. And few things make me happier than spicy food made with coconut milk.
Best of all, there were some incredibly friendly people there who appreciated and embraced my curiosity (and ridiculous appetite). Without exception, all of the women patiently and enthusiastically explained their food offerings to me, and invited me to taste their wares. They made it hard to leave: just as I was about to escape with a massive bag of food in my greasy little fingers, a friendly lady shoved a delicious rectangular block of sticky rice with brown sugar and jackfruit into my hand so that I could try it.
What? Random smiling strangers shoving dessert into my hands?!? In NYC? I doubt that I’ll ever make it into the real heaven, but if the closest I can get is that parking lot in Astoria… I think I’m cool with that.
Indonesian Food Bazaar
48-01 31st Ave., Astoria
Subway: 46th Street (R, M trains)