Some of the most colorful features of Indonesian culture were forged in Indonesia’s embrace of Indian influence. The famous wayang, shadow puppet shows, tell stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The wonderfully loopy script you sometimes see Indonesians reading on the R train descends from Pallava script, an ancient Indian script based on Brahmi, from which Devanagari, the script used for Hindi and Nepali, also developed.
But wayang and the loopy script are both native to Java. Islam, which would spread across Indonesia’s 17,000 islands, entered far to the west, in Sumatra. Like the peoples of Java, the Sumatrans speak an Austronesian language, but they never used an Indian script. Their language, Minangkabau, was first written in a script based on Arabic. Do you see Indonesians reading Minangkabau on the R train? I wouldn’t know. It is now usually written with the Roman alphabet, and it looks and sounds like Tagalog to me.
Elmhurst Islamic Center
Today, Islam unites the islands, and I assume that most of the Indonesians living in Elmhurst pray at one of the modest Islamic centers here. But the regional differences of the homeland survive in Elmhurst—both in language and in food. Upi Jaya, an Elmhurst restaurant where I ate tonight, is known for its Minangkabau cuisine, more commonly called padang cuisine for the capital of west Sumatra.
I cannot contrast padang cuisine to the native dishes of Java or the other islands (I add native because Minang cuisine is supposedly popular throughout Indonesia. But what I had was extremely rich and pretty spicy.
I ordered redang padang (spicy beef) and satay ayam (skewered chicken in peanut sauce). Surprisingly, Upi Jaya made better satay ayam—which is really a dish from Java—than redang padang. The redang padang combined biting and mellower spices for a wonderful taste, but the meat was dry and tough. The satay ayam, on the other hand, was soft, sweet, and spicy—delicious.
The space at Upi Jaya is intimate, and there are no social boundaries between tables. A man who said he’d traveled two hours from New Jersey to eat there struck up a conversation with people at a neighboring table, and a little boy from another table brought me his father’s credit card (which, let me assure you, I returned to its owner). The walls of the restaurant are all covered with mirrors, and I imagine it can get loud when it is crowded.
The service at Upi Jaya can be a little slow. If you have a little time, though, Upi Jaya is a good place to get acquainted with the food of Minangkabau—and Java.
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