Indonesian food enthusiast Fefe Anggano threw a special session of the Indonesian Food Bazaar last Saturday in Elmhurst to raise money for the tsunami-struck region of Indonesia. The Liwetan feast, a traditional way of eating in Indonesian villages, was served on banana leaves and meant to be eaten with bare hands.
A devastating tsunami struck several coastal regions around Sunda Strait in southwest Indonesia three days before Christmas, killing 430, injuring more than 14,000, and destroying about 2,800 houses. The event raised $1,100 and half of the amount will be donated directly to the people in the tsunami-hit areas, according to Anggano.
Eight years ago, Anggano, 44, founded the Indonesian Food Bazaar in Queens. The monthly one-day food pop-up usually features around 12 Indonesian vendors from New York, Virginia, Philadelphia and Connecticut, and attracts around 500 food-lovers.
After the tsunami, Anggano came up with the idea to do a special session to collect money for the tens of thousands of her fellow nationals who lived in disaster area shelters. She hoped she could leverage the growing requests she gets on Facebook for Indonesian authentic eatables to raise money for charity. “A lot of people keep asking when the next bazaar will be and why are you waiting so long,” said Anggano. “So, as my friends outside New York are fine with it, why not?”
Anggano, a Chinese-Indonesian, made the decision to leave Indonesia in May, 1998 after one of her closest friends was raped and later committed suicide. She was studying Chinese in Taiwan when it happened, and never went back to Surabaya, her hometown in East Java, Indonesia. Her friend’s rape occurred after a week of brutal violence broke out in Indonesia that targeted ethnic Chinese. She and thousands of other ethnic Chinese, who make up about 5 percent of Indonesia’s population, fled the country around the same time.
Instead of hatred, hysteria and anxiety towards other indigenous Indonesians, however, Anggano carried her concern for others with her, especially for those who suffered from the effects of natural disasters in the archipelago. Her intimacy with the country’s cuisine also traveled more than 10,000 miles with her, culminating in her monthly food bazaars that build on her nostalgia for authentic home delicacies and Liwetan, a traditional way of eating in Indonesian villages.
“The farmers worked on the field and their wives would bring food and banana leaves under wherever they eat, like a little Gazebo they made for resting. They watched the rice paddy field. It’s always beautiful,” recalled 65-year-old Luhur Budiarjo, speaking at the feast. He said he had not been to a Liwetan feast for 50 years.
His American spouse Louis Budiarjo, 68, said her husband couldn’t travel back home since 2004 as his leg couldn’t handle the long journey. She was happy they’d come to the feast in Elmhurst, though, adding that her husband said he felt almost like he’d gone back home without the long flight the moment he saw shrimp crackers lying in small bamboo baskets and mie gorang (spiced fried noodles) spread on deep green leaves.
Around 60 people from all five boroughs of New York showed up at last Saturday’s feast. About half of them were not Indonesians, but all of them came to get a taste of Indonesian culture, if only for a few hours.
“This is like a little piece of Indonesia,” said Cameron Hume, 72, the former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia who served from 2007 to 2010. Invited by the Indonesians community to the feast, he devoured sayur urap (coconut-sprinkled vegetable), tempe goreng (fried fermented soybeans) and tahu bacem (soybean cake with sweet seasoned spices) on his banana leaf. “Personal relationships are very important and enduring in the Indonesian culture. They do remember you,” he said. “Americans are friendly, but we forget after meeting people. Indonesians are not like that.”
The former ambassador was not the only one to appreciate the tasty offerings. “Good cause, good food, good people” was 50-year-old food writer Joe DiStefano’s takeaway from the feast. He has been writing about food, especially the diverse global cuisine mosaic in Queens, for more than 20 years.
Anggano encouraged the foodies, from retired U.S. ambassador to Indonesians to toddlers, sitting in the strollers next to their moms, to gobble up the specialties only with their hands. Spoons were not provided unless they were having sayur ledeh soup (a veggie soup prepared from greens in coconut milk).
“I think they put the forks out and then took the forks away. Maybe they are going to put them back,” said Agnes Toronto, 73, who was nonetheless intrigued by eating solely with her hands. She said she would prefer to use utensils. But that chance never came.
Sitting around the long table, people bumped elbows to greet each other, instead of shaking spiced and messy hands that had dipped into bowls of colorful sambal (chili paste with pepper and shrimp paste).
Julie Tan, 42, an Indonesian resident from Staten Island, came to Queens for the feast, even though she says she isn’t always comfortable with the mess when she eats with her hands. She made a $15 donation, which was half of the required fee for the get-together, with a savory bonus.
“It’s like an Indonesian thanksgiving for us. Sharing foods means sharing love,” said Tan. “We care about each other and them (the victims of tsunami back in Indonesia).”