The Asian Food Fest came to Downtown Cincinnati, Ohio last weekend. The festival brought together various Asian booths from the Greater Cincinnati region (which includes Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky) to serve up taste samples of their best dishes. There was no admission charge for the visitors, but donations were accepted to help Care2Share build village and school facilities in Pleiku, Vietnam.
The festival featured 13 food vendors with a delectable array of dishes. There are those showcasing Thai food, Indian curries, Vietnamese rolls, Filipino barbecue, and Thai bubble tea. Most of them have restaurants in Ohio, while a few others (including Indonesia’s own House of Sate) only have small catering businesses which they run from home.
Due to the low prevalence of Asian restaurants, Americans in the Midwest tend to have little idea of what Asian cuisine is like. When they think of Asian food, the only things that come into their mind are the meals in a Chinese restaurant or Japanese’s sushi. The Asian Food Fest aims to change that perception by introducing the less-popular Asian cuisine into the general American population.
This was the third time the festival is conducted. However, for the Indonesian American community in Cincinnati, it marked something else altogether. It was our debut in representing our ancestral cuisine to the festival. Ria Fariani Ellison and her partner Ake Nurita Langlois opened up a booth called The House of Sate, where they showcased chicken satay accompanied with yellow rice and ‘acar‘ (pickled vegetables). For dessert, they served ‘bolu kukus‘ (steamed cupcakes).
A resident of Sacramento, California, Langlois visited Cincinnati to help her childhood friend Ria in organizing the Indonesian booth. The pair then invited several of their Indonesian friends to help out with grilling the satay and serving the customers. I was privileged to be one of them.
Unlike Indonesian communities in coastal states like New York and California, those residing in the Midwest tend to be sparse and rare. We do not advertise our existence through the internet, nor do we have many Indonesian restaurants to cater to our longing for Indonesian food.
It was to our delight to find that there are a lot of Indonesians coming to the event, specifically to check out our booth. Some are friends and acquaintances, but most are those who are unaware that Indonesian community around Cincinnati has gained stronger foothold over the last couple of years.
Apart from fellow Indonesians and Asians, there are also other Americans coming with keen interest in Indonesian culture, checking our booth with bits of salutations, “Apa kabar?” and “Selamat siang!” Some were curious of what yellow rice is made of, asking questions like, “Do you mix the rice with saffron like the Indians do” to which we answer that it is rice mixed with turmeric. Some others were peculiarly delighted to see that there is such a thing called “steamed cupcakes.”
There were some concerns among booth participants that it might rain during those two days of the event, since rain has been falling quite sporadically over the last several weeks. Thank goodness, the sun shone brightly and the air was dry, contributing to the larger turnout of the crowd.
A notable visitor was an old lady who came in saying that she had spent a year working in Fatmawati hospital, South Jakarta in 1962. She then told us that she still remembered some folk songs such as “Nona Manis” and “Si Paku Gelang,” and asked some of us to sing with her. We were more than happy to oblige. After 50 years of leaving Indonesia, she had a fairly good command of basic Indonesian, and left us impressed. For the whole weekend, we tried our best to become the first ambassadors of Indonesian food and culture to the region.
According to the festival’s marketing director Bao Nguyen, an estimated number of 10,000 people was expected to come to the event. To accompany their enjoyment of the food, there were several live entertainments at the centerpiece including Japanese pop singer, aikido performance, and a Polynesian dance.
One performance which quickly became the main highlight of the event was the Balinese dance of Panyembrama, performed by local dancer Jeanne Speier and her Indonesian partner Kamelia Smith. It marked the first time a Balinese dance got performed on the Asian Food Fest. Soon enough, a lot of passersby and visitors alike huddled in front of the stage, forming a crowd enthralled by the beauty of their movements.
After the festival concluded, booth owner Ria said, “It was a challenge, but I am glad everyone seems to enjoy working in our booth! It is not too profitable this time around since this is our first time doing this, but I am pretty confident that we can do much better next year. I have received suggestions that the booth can be more attractive by including more variety in the menu such as pisang goreng (fried banana) and traditional drinks such as “cendol” or “es teler”. Also, some gamelan music can attract more attention”
It would definitely be something we are going to look forward to in 2013.
Thomas Andrikus is a student in Northern Kentucky University. His blog is at http://foreignprophecies.blogspot.com