For those not in the know, the bright yellow table behind the shelves at Indo Java Groceries in Elmhurst, Queens, may seem like nothing more than a curious design choice. But what they don’t realize is that this table is a sign of something great – it means that one of three chefs is in the building.
Hailing from different places on the long landmass of Java, the world’s most populous island, these women are cooking meals that remind New York City’s Indonesian community of the tastes they miss from back home. The origin of these popular days, when customers can purchase food cooked on the spot, happened almost by accident: Inspectors from the city health department wanted to see a working kitchen since the grocery store was selling prepared foods.
After upgrading the tiny space in the back to satisfy their demands, shop owners Elvi Goliat and Ria Janti teamed up with Dewi Tjahjadi, a friend from church and partner at Indo Java since its opening in the mid-2000s, to launch Warung Selesa in early 2016. This name for the informal and temporary nature of the Tuesday-only offerings is a reference to the small stands (warungs) found throughout Indonesia, while “selesa” is simply the word for Tuesday.
Ms. Tjahjadi was working elsewhere but had a free day on Tuesdays, leading to the idea of making use of the new kitchen. The food she prepared from her native Surabaya, the largest city in Jawa Timur (East Java), soon became well known in the community. The shop was consistently buzzing with takeout business, although many customers stayed to eat and chat at the yellow table.
After a short time and plenty of good press that expanded their reach outside of the Indonesian community, Warung Kamis (Thursday Warung) was born and operated by Viviane Chin. Ms. Chin comes from the capital city of Jakarta and cooks food that’s more familiar to those from the western half of Java.
When we ask about the differences each chef brings to Indo Java, Ms. Goliat tells us, “Dewi’s foods are sweet, but Vivi’s foods are also salty.” Thursdays still have more of an Indonesian vibe while the Tuesday operation continues to draw crowds from outside of the community. Following the Instagram account of Indo Java Groceries is the best way to stay in the loop about what will be served on these two days as well as on Sundays, when the shop hosts the newest addition to their lineup, Fitriyah Assegaf’s Warung Minggu.
Ms. Assegaf has been cooking on this day for the better part of a year now, offering her cuisine from Gresik, a city in Jawa Timur near Surabaya but with much different flavors. “Fitri’s food is the most salty of the three!” Ms. Goliat says, not as a warning (certainly the salt is not overdone) but more of a reflection on the difference in taste – food from Gresik relies less on coconut milk-based curries and other ingredients with sweeter tones.
Ms. Assegaf packed extra portions of the sambal and instructed us to “just cook it with fried rice” if there were any leftovers.
Called “Fitri” by customers and friends, Ms. Assegaf used to work at nearby Upi Jaya in a non-cooking role but has long been providing packaged foods to Indo Java. She is happy to pull out her phone to show us all her creations – hints of what might be to come on future Sundays.
Each chef has their own following and regulars, with first meals ready around 11 a.m. on all three days. Food may be available up until 8 p.m. or so, but then again they can also sell out long before that on a particularly busy day. If you call ahead, they are happy to set aside a portion for you.
While it’s always nice to find one of the two seats at that yellow table free, the shop is at its most exciting when full of people and laughter. Another table can be pulled out, but since everyone seems to know each other, people will stand at the counter near the cash register to eat their meal. New York City has a way of feeling overcrowded, but here at Indo Java it never seems like anyone is in the way.
On a recent Sunday we found the shop fairly sleepy and were able to share the table with two of Fitri’s regulars. While there is usually just one meal on offer, she had prepared two on this day including nasi krawu khas gresik, one of her home city’s most recognizable dishes. Circling the white rice in the center of the plate are a wide range of tastes: beef cuts and tripe, two halves of a hard-boiled egg and tofu; the latter two are smothered in rich sauces. Three dried coconut spices are the focal point of the dish, each a different color depending on whether they are infused with turmeric, paprika or peeled kluwak nuts. These are meant to be combined with bites of the rest, creating an almost unlimited amount of flavor combinations. Ms. Assegaf tells us that the other chefs have tried and failed at making nasi krawu khas gresik, beaming with pride as she explains that each of the three sweet coconut spices takes almost an hour of preparation.
The dried black kluwak nuts, available for sale in the grocery of course, are also used in the dark nasi rawon beef soup Ms. Assegaf makes at least once a month. This is served with a very salty half of a hard-boiled egg and a large saucer of sambal, the fiery red chile sauce served with most items. Despite having come here many times, we always receive a warning about this sauce, usually followed by the giggle of any nearby patrons as they watch to make sure we don’t go overboard with the sambal. Once, when part of our order was packed to go, Ms. Assegaf packed extra portions of the sambal and instructed us to “just cook it with fried rice” if there were any leftovers.
If we could understand all the conversations taking place in Indo Java’s two small aisles and kitchen, we’d probably get a lot more of these small tips and hints, mixed in with gossip and friends sharing the little joys of day-to-day life – the things that make this grocery store much more than a place to shop and eat.