Bali Kitchen Hits the Jackpot with Indonesian Treats in the East Village

The refrigerated case at Bali Kitchen in the East Village is the size of a casino slot machine and bears virtually as many exciting fruity combinations. Under fluorescent lights, usual-suspect American sodas sit alongside custom-bottled soft drinks flavored with pineapple and ginger, juice box cartons of jasmine or cinnamon-tinged Indonesian teas, and what look like more sodas but are actually cans of “milk peanut soup,” a sugary legume potage. Better still are the sealed plastic cups of house-made fruit drinks ($3-$7): floral lychee and magenta-hued rambutan iced teas crowded with pulpy flesh and whole fruit; creamy avocado stained with swirls of chocolate syrup; and a frothy durian juice, equal parts stinky and sweet.

Bali Kitchen

Cendol ($6) blurs the lines between drink and dessert. If you like the gummi worm concoction known as dirt pudding, you’ll no doubt enjoy digging through this refreshing mess of coconut milk zapped with palm sugar and brimming with strands of rice-flour jelly tinted green from vanilla-like pandan leaf. Other chilled sweets ($4-$5) peek out from disposable ramekins, like multicolored, mildly tart jackfruit custards (vegan and non-) topped with cubes of coconut jelly. Klappertaart, a gooey, raisin-studded coconut cake that harks back to Indonesia’s Dutch colonial past, is a mainstay. And if you’re so inclined, it’s recently been joined by a similar cake that swaps out coconut for durian, the pungent fruit mellowing as it bakes. There are prepared tofu salads ($7.95) in the cold case, too, mosh pits of firm bean curd with diced long beans and shredded coconut or a swarm of pineapple, hard-boiled eggs, and crunchy, slightly bitter emping — deep-fried chips made from the seeds of the melinjo plant — waiting to be tossed with jalapeño and peanut dressings.

Hungrier folk will want to seek out the sprawling picture menu that stretches across half of the wall, or consult with the smaller chalkboard menu next to it that lists the full rundown plus a few seasonal specials, like sayur lodeh ($4.95), a heavenly coconut milk and root vegetable stew suffused with lemongrass, lime leaves, candlenuts, and the maritime funk of dried shrimp. It can be ordered with chunks of tempeh, though chopped sweet shrimp more soulfully speak to the soup’s already briny, citrusy punch.

Jazz P. Souisay, head chef and co-owner of Bali Kitchen

The eight-seat restaurant, which takes up a whitewashed sliver of a storefront on East Fourth Street, comes from spouses David Prettyman, an erstwhile aid worker who coordinates City Harvest’s Greenmarket food rescues, and Jazz P. Souisay, an artist and fashion designer from eastern Java who is also the head chef here. They opened Bali Kitchen just shy of a year ago with an eye toward takeout and delivery. Everything is served in compostable containers and with eco-friendly flatware. Vegetarian alternatives abound. It’s a boon not only to the neighborhood, but to a city that, despite its wide-ranging dining options, only has about a dozen or so restaurants devoted to Indonesian cuisine.

While Bali is where the couple met more than two decades ago, Souisay’s menu hopscotches around the Indonesian archipelago, paying tribute to the diverse cooking traditions spread throughout the country’s 13,000-plus islands. Soto ayam Ambengan ($11.95) hails from Surabaya, the city where he grew up. The turmeric-spiked chicken noodle soup is as comforting a bowl as you could hope for, full of rice cakes, fragrant fried garlic, half a boiled egg, and the plump, Dutch-influenced potato fritter called perkedel. A squeeze of lime bolsters the gently sour lemongrass broth.

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Two kinds of Indonesia’s staggering number of regional grilled sate skewers are offered. Both are excellent. Served as an entrée with chewy coconut rice cakes and spicy pickled mango, sate Makassar ($13.95), named for a city on the southern coast of Sulawesi, finds lightly charred chicken reveling in a glaze of peanut dressing and a tart sauce made with bilimbi, a cousin of the starfruit. Balinese sate lilit ($6.95), meanwhile, is a ginger-and-turmeric–packed appetizer of chicken, swai fish, or mushrooms ground with shredded coconut and formed around pronged sticks like oblong meatballs. Dip them into Bali’s sambal matah, a raw shallot-lemongrass relish that delivers a feisty kick.

Lawar Tahu Salad

Noodle and rice dishes make up the heartiest meals. Souisay’s beef rendang ($13.95) is worth the trip alone. The glorious flood of saucy brisket is cooked down for six to eight hours in coconut milk fortified with, among other things, galangal, star anise, and makrut lime, until the sauce thickens and the meat relaxes in a fork-tender heap. Ladled next to sautéed greens and a spoonful of sambal, it’s sensationally aromatic and filling. There are also fried egg and garlic cracker-topped stir fries of wheat or cellophane noodles ($10.95) and dabu dabu ($14.95), chicken or fish smothered in a vibrant mango-pineapple salsa that feels summer appropriate. Bali Kitchen’s nasi goreng ($10.95), a nationally beloved fried rice, is liberally laced with the Indonesian sweet soy sauce kecap manis, though the condiment fades into the background in nasi goreng kampung ($11.95), which adds shrimp paste, bitter beans, and an abundance of dried krill and baby anchovies to the equation for an eye-opening rush of concentrated fermented oceanic salinity. Sate lilit reappears in the nasi campur bali ($14.95), joining gingery simmered chicken breast, tempeh strips, diced long beans, and sambal-covered hard-boiled eggs, all placed around a mound of jasmine rice. For nasi kuning ($12.95), a vegetarian version, the rice is turmeric and stewed mushrooms are the star.

Lapis Legit Cake

One of the cooks, David Silva, is in charge of all of the desserts. His greatest achievement isn’t found in the refrigerated case, but instead hangs out by the register among the assorted fried snacks under glass domes. Called lapis legit ($4.50) or spekkoek in Dutch, the dense and buttery layer cake is another vestige of colonialism. With more than twenty layers, it takes hours to make. The end result is as precious as a piece of jewelry, redolent of pandan and cinnamon and doled out in diminutive striped slices. Like Bali Kitchen, it’s a brief taste of Indonesia that speaks volumes.

Bali Kitchen
128 East 4th Street


In 2018, Tempeh’s Temptations Are More Than a Trend

Awang Kitchen is a bright spot on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst. Literally: It’s lit so strongly, you can spot it from afar while you drive hungrily down the street looking around for parking. The small space has a sushi bar to your right when you walk in, but everyone comes for the Indonesian food. Elmhurst has long been known as the neighborhood in the city to go to for beef rendang and mie goreng, as well as tempeh, and Awang, which opened in 2017, has become the neighborhood’s shining star.

What most Americans know as a meat substitute that usually sits next to the tofu dogs in the vegan section of the supermarket is actually a staple of Indonesian cuisine. There it was first made by wrapping soybeans in hibiscus leaves; the mold Rhizopus oligosporus adhered to those leaves naturally, and the hot and humid climate was a perfect incubator. Tempeh became both a staple of the diet and a protein substitute for anyone who couldn’t afford meat. In its Americanized life, it’s turned into hamburgers and bacon, an adaptation seems strange to Pat Tanumihardja, the Jakarta-born author of Farm to Table Asian Secrets—Vegan and Vegetarian Full-Flavored Recipes for Every Season.

“When I first came to the U.S. [from Jakarta] for college in 1992, I only saw tempe [its Indonesian spelling] on menus at vegetarian or hippie restaurants and also in health food stores. It wasn’t even sold at the Asian markets,” she tells me over email. “Over the years, I noticed tempe at mainstream supermarkets … vegetarians and vegans were using it as a meat substitute and turning it into odd foods like burgers, tacos, salads, and stews. I was so used to seeing it cooked Indonesian-style.”

Chef Siliwanga at Awang Kitchen

At Awang Kitchen, that’s what you get. Chef Siliwanga serves two tempeh appetizers: a lightly fried pillow called tempeh mendoan, which is served with a palm-sugar-sweetened soy dipping sauce dotted with chopped scallion, and a deep-fried version, served sans sauce. The former, he says, is very traditional to his home of Java, while the latter was was put on the menu for those who might find softer tempeh off-putting. While they look similar enough on first glance, the mendoan brings the intense mushroomy flavor of the protein to the fore, complemented by the nice salty-sweet balance of the sauce.

“On one hand, I’m glad Indonesian food is getting its fair share of recognition — or at least one particular food is,” Tanumihardja says. “I’m really hoping that Indonesian cuisine will become more popular in the U.S. because it’s such a rich, diverse cuisine. On the other, it’s pointless if Indonesian food like tempe becomes popular but is divorced from its cultural and historical origins. People who eat it are none the wiser, and assume it’s just a product or invention borne out of the vegan food movement.”

Tempeh mendoan (left) and tempeh goreng at Awang Kitchen

The way veganism claims plant-based meat substitutes from various Asian cuisines as its own — turning tofu into nuggets, seitan into sausage, jackfruit into pulled pork — takes a different form at chef Chris Scott’s Butterfunk Kitchen in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. There, at the recent Top Chef finalist’s soul-food restaurant, he serves a chicken-fried version with a stew of okra and other vegetables. The result is a satisfyingly crispy dish that, again, doesn’t hide the intensity of tempeh’s own funk. And somehow it fits right in among the crispy deviled eggs, fried catfish, and braised beef brisket. You could say it’s a Southern take on what they serve up in Elmhurst — a clever way to give the vegans something to munch on at a very meaty restaurant — but the reasons behind its inclusion on the menu go much deeper, because Scott finds it surprising that plant-based eaters even step foot inside his restaurant.

“It’s like a carnivore heading out to a vegetarian restaurant for steak,” he says. “But that seems to be the trend these days: Everyone is looking for healthier options, even if it means literally changing the historic methods and ingredients of a cuisine. With that being said, we put our tempeh on the soul food menu.”

Scott was introduced to the protein while cooking at a vegan and macrobiotic restaurant. “I immediately fell in love with it. Its flavor and texture was so unique,” he says, “and I loved its versatility from being made with the traditional soybean to other tempeh styles, like chickpea or farro.” All kinds of tempeh start with legumes or grains, which are soaked, cooked, mixed with a bacteria culture, and then left to incubate at a temperature of about 80 to 90 degrees for 24 to 32 hours to let a white mycelium form to make all those legumes stick together. That resulting funky flavor and chewy texture provide ready-to-go meatiness. At his spot next door to Butterfunk, Brooklyn Commune, it fits right in with their plant-forward, farm-to-table approach.

Butterfunk Kitchen’s Chris Scott and his wife, Eugenie Woo

Butterfunk, though, serves a menu based on Scott’s family’s cooking over seven generations, dating back to slavery.  There weren’t any vegetarians (or Indonesians, for that matter) in his ancestry. Yet he found a way to make it work, using Queens-based brand Barry’s Tempeh. “We prepare it in the old-school method of chicken-fried steak. Tempeh is a better fit than tofu on our menu. After all, soybeans are a product that are grown by black farmers, now and during slavery times. It was and is an integral part of the diet of Southerners,” he explains, as it uses the whole bean. “Tofu, in that form, is not.”

Tempeh became a major vegetarian protein player in the U.S. when the authors of The Book of Tofu, William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, turned their attention toward it in their 1979 release The Book of Tempeh. They provide instructions on making your own along with recipes for traditional dishes, like grilled tempeh with kemangi in coconut-milk sauce, along with the much less classic tempeh guacamole. While their writing goes through extensive pains to ground the dish in its place of origin, the brand you’re now most likely to find at Whole Foods, Lightlife, is based in Massachusetts. It’s no wonder so few people have any idea that it’s Indonesian.

The strange history of tempeh in the U.S. will hopefully see reformation through the success of restaurants like Awang Kitchen, which are serving it without apology the way it was intended. Butterfunk, though, presents a challenge.

“Just like the farm-to-table movement, where we’re trying to recognize the farmers who grow our food,” says Tanumihardja, “we should be aware that every cuisine and every dish within that cuisine comes with cultural provenance, too.” She’s talking about tempeh, but it applies to soul food too. Are vegans owed a dish at every restaurant, even when chefs are trying to tell a specific and historic story? The answer doesn’t go down as easy as those chicken-fried beans.

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This Weekend’s Five Best Food Events – 10/10/2014

Fall is in full swing, and there are dozens of parties happening here each weekend. Here are the five best food events this weekend.

Fall Burger Crawl Hosted by Chef Russell Jackson, multiple locations, Saturday, noon

Spend Saturday enjoying off-the-menu burgers at up to four locations followed by an after-party celebrating your ridiculous appetite. Chef Russell Jackson will lead the midtown crawl, which includes stops at Point Break and Tri Tip Grill. Each location will serve half of a special burger paired with a Sixpoint brew, and participants will meet up at Hudson Common when it’s all over. Tickets start at $45.

The Feast Fest, Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer Street, Brooklyn, Saturday, 8 p.m.

Head to the seaside community of Red Hook this weekend for this donation-based party, where you’ll find a bar, dance party, and food from local vendors available for purchase. Neighborhood residents get in for free, though you’ll have to showing proof of address at the door. Look for samples from Brooklyn Brew Shop, Chipotle, and One Hope wine. Tickets are $50.

Indonesian Food Bazaar, Masjid al-Hikmah, 48-01 31st Avenue, Queens, Sunday, 9:30 a.m.

If you’ve got $5 to spare, head to this unique market, which sets up sporadically and features dishes from home cooks who don’t otherwise make their food available to the public. Sample a variety of Indonesian specialties like beef rendang and sticky rice, iced coconut milk, and combro, a deep-fried, chili-spiked croquette of grated cassava. You can feast until 6 p.m.

Brooklyn Wort, Threes Brewing, 333 Douglass Street Sunday, 1 p.m.

Thirty of the best homebrews in the city will be poured this weekend, all part of a competition to name the best homemade beer in NYC. After sampling the contenders, guests can decide a People’s Choice winner; judges will also hand out prizes for top brew. Food truck favorite Solber Pupusas will provide a plate of food to all attendees. Tickets are $45 .

Mario Batali and Mark Bittman with Sam Sifton: Cooking Fast and Slow, 92 Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, Sunday, 7 p.m.

A panel of the food industry’s finest will meet to talk about the benefits of slow food, with a few recipes shared along the way. The New York Times writer Mark Bittman and chef Mario Batali will chat with former food critic Sam Sifton, and Sifton and Bittman will sign copies of their latest books. Secure your seat for $45 through the Y’s website.