Based on NYC Media’s new food TV series, “Native Dish: United Flavors of NYC,” Culinary Backstreets brings you a behind-the-scenes look at some of the New Yorkers featured in these short videos. The series, which aims to celebrate New York City immigrants from all over the world, focuses on one individual and one dish at a time as a means through which to explore the myriad cuisines represented in the city and the people who make them.
While each episode features a general overview of the participant’s life story, particularly as it relates to food, we are expanding that narrative by providing a portion of the interview, condensed and lightly edited. It’s their story, in their own words. This month, we are spotlighting Upi Yuliastuti, an Indonesian immigrant from the Pandang region of Sumatra, who has been the chef at Upi Jaya restaurant for 15 years. Through her daughter Tika, we hear about Upi’s dedication to her kitchen, her desire to share Indonesian food with the city and what sets her beef rendang apart from all the other eateries in town.
We are in Elmhurst, New York. I would think people call it “Little Indonesia” because there is a fair amount of Indonesian community around here. We have a lot of Indonesian churches and groceries, [but] we only have a handful of Indonesian restaurants. One of them being Upi Jaya.
My mother comes from Pandang, a little island in Sumatra. Pandang food is really spicy … what’s typical is a lot of chili pastes and coconut milk-based ingredients, and ginger lemongrass. I would say the menu [at Upi Jaya] reflects a lot of family recipes. A lot of the cooking that my mother has in this restaurant is based on her knowledge, what she learned from my grandmother, so it reflects her childhood in Indonesia. Cooking is all my mother knows, you know? She was taught how to cook when she was a child, so she brought on that passion here. It carries on in her food, I believe.
An Ambassador Of Sorts
Being that there are only a handful of Indonesian restaurants in Queens, specifically, she [my mother] would like younger generations to taste and understand what Indonesian food is all about – she likes to kind of represent Indonesia a little bit. A lot of American people see interest in Indonesia food because, I believe, it’s hard to find authentic Indonesian food cooked by an actual Indonesian person. One lesson I would [tell them]: Prepare yourself for a lot of spice!
My mother prefers to do a lot of the cooking alone, just because she’s very picky. It’s not that she doesn’t really trust anybody or doesn’t want anyone to know the ingredients – she would just prefer that it was her cooking, so her customers know it was coming from her hands. It shows more love – you can taste [it in] the food. It’s more personal.
I think Indonesian food is different from, let’s say Thai or Indian, because although we use a lot of potent ingredients like ginger and chili and lemongrass, it’s simmered in coconut milk, so it has a light taste and, at the same time, you get a lot of flavor all at once.
Like No One Else’s: Beef Rendang
The most-eaten dish on this menu is the beef rendang. I think that is the one dish that really separates my mother from [all] other Indonesian cooking. Her beef rendang is just cooked so differently, you have to try it! The beef rendang is the thigh part of the beef, and it’s a very complex dish. It’s cooked for about 5-6 hours just because its has to simmer to that specific texture that we like, so it’s not a stew and not necessarily a dry beef.
The main ingredients in the beef rendang are chili paste, ground ginger, lemongrass and coconut milk. First, you take the lemongrass and the bay leaves – she also uses bay leaves – and fry them in oil, just to get the aroma of the lemongrass. Then she would add in her other ingredients, like the chili paste, the ginger paste, the coconut milk and all her other spices and stuff.
The key to making beef rendang is patience, I would have to say. A lot of patience, and a lot of stirring … [but] you also have to know when to leave it alone. Typically, we serve it with just plain white jasmine rice. Rice is the main ingredient in Asian culture. We serve everything with rice – for breakfast and dinner.
I hope a lot of my customer experience the love and the thought that comes into the cooking. I would hope that they appreciate what Indonesia cooking is about. And to maybe one day say, after eating here, “I wanna go to Bali or Padang.”
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