The southwest corner of Broad and Mifflin streets was turned into a marketplace for exotic Indonesian dishes and drinks just days after the nation celebrated its independence. Halfway through the daylong event, the sidewalks outside United Healthcare Center were so crowded that a snail’s pace was the best anyone could manage on a sunny day in South Philadelphia.
Pesta Rakyat 2013, also known as the Indonesian Festival, attracted a diverse crowd people of all ages, including hundreds of local and area residents with Indonesian heritage, many of whom still have loved ones to represent their families on their beloved southeastern Asian homeland, a tropical island encompassed by the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean.
Many festival-goers enjoy seeing so many fellow Indonesians in one place and others enjoying their food, dance, and culture. The Indonesian Diaspora Network of Greater Philadelphia sponsored the event on Aug. 24, 2013, providing South Philadelphia’s close-knit Indonesian community with the chance to show pride in their homeland, talk about their common interests, catch up friends on the latest details in their personal lives, and network.
“Sometimes, we talk by phone but here we can talk face to face,” said Mary Haryani, of South Philadelphia, who was accompanied by her 7-year-old son Harley who was munching on a slice of green pandan leaf cake bigger than his hand.
Haryani decided to support the festival in celebration of Indonesian Independence Day marking freedom from Japanese occupation at the end of World War II.
Elizabeth Monika lives in Burlington City, N.J., but she was happy to make the hour-long drive from Philadelphia. She could visit her mother in South Philadelphia, and go to the festival, where she could watch authentic dances representing some of Indonesian’s 300 villages and meet-up with others who share a common bond.
“It’s the Indonesian community,” she said. “We came from the same country, so I like to hang out with them.”
“I can meet a lot of friends,” said Willy Sumampouw, who had packed food in a compartment beneath the stroller carrying his 17-month-old son. “It’s not really often that we get to see people at events like this.”
The South Philadelphia man said he enjoyed the convenience of registering with the consular’s office, which provides alerts on travel warnings and security alerts, communicates major news about Indonesian and assists with navigating government services, including passport privileges and visa applications. Demand remained high with people waiting in long queues throughout the day.
But the major draw was easily the food and drink. The sweet odor of hot foods was enough to stop visitors in their tracks—anyone who enjoys southeastern Asian cuisine and especially Indonesians craving culinary treats from their homeland.
Some of the dishes may have been tricky for some to pronounce but great food is great food. Scallions, scrambled egg, and ground chicken were mixed together in an entree called martabak. Sweet rice and pork were wrapped in leaves for extra flavoring, and cucumber was paired with mango.
Spicy squid and milkfish were probably the most exotic foods offered by vendors. There were plenty of side dishes to choose, both salty and sweet, from rice pudding by the name of Gong Kong to a popular three-layer dessert combining brown sugar with young coconut and gelatin. Fresh-picked produce included eggplant, papaya, mango, and cabbage.
On a hot summer day, there were cold drinks with exotic ingredients: grass jelly with sugar syrup (cincaw); tapioca, coconut milk and brown sugar (cendol); sugary syrup added to cantaloupe (blewah).
Sales started to pick up at about noon, and most food vendors sold out in a few hours. Many dishes were Javanese-inspired, which makes perfect sense considering that Javanese are the largest ethnic group by far, accounting for 41 percent of the population; followed by the Sundanese at 15 percent. Five other ethnicities are significantly smaller, each representing no more than 3 percent of the population.
The consular general from New York, Ghafur A. Dharmaputra, attended the first annual event, wearing a batik shirt, which is part of men’s traditional dress. He applauded Philadelphia for organizing the first Pesta Rakyat in the United States.
Asian Bank employees from the branch at 111 N. 9th Street, Philadelphia, were the best dressed at the festival, appearing in button-down shirts, that is until attorneys showed up wearing suits and ties for an afternoon session about immigration reform.
Jay Bagia, who specializes in immigration law at the Philadelphia law firm, Bagia & Associates, shared information about reduced restrictions on those traveling abroad as well as new or upcoming changes affecting those seeking employment authorization, permanent residency or U.S. citizenship.
Visitors were kept entertained with a variety of performances on an elevated stage draped in the colors of Indonesia’s national flag, red and white.
Dancers wearing brightly colored native dress and headwear performed native dances representing various tribes. There were musical and dance performances from Bethany Church, Philadelphia Pray Center, Indonesian Cultural Club of Delaware, Modero Dance Company, pantomime artist Syarif Tambakyoso, and an interfaith prayer ceremony.
Raffle prizes redeemable at businesses catering to the Indonesian community were awarded to holders of winning tickets and callers who were the first to send a text-message to the correct answer to trivia questions about Philadelphia and Indonesia.
Award-winning author Fida R. Abbott hails originally from East Java but now lives in Coatesville, 30 minutes west of King of Prussia with her husband Gregory and their daughter Ariel. She set up a table to promote and sell copies of her newest book, “Enthusiasm,” in both English and Indonesian. She scored a major deal when an Indonesian publishing house bought copyrights to the book about six months after its 2012 release.
In the book, Abbott writes about the craft of writing and the obstacles she encountered in bringing the book from concept to market. “It’s not easy,” said Abbott, author of “What Prayers Does Mommy Teach Me?,” and former managing editor of Indonesian News, an online publication.
The festival featured vendors selling DVD movies, electronics, jewelry and fashion and promoting services such as Indonesian-language cable program, Nusan TV, and Cargo Mom, an international distributor that offers international shipping services, mostly for families with loved ones in Indonesia.
United Healthcare used popular Sesame Street characters to raise awareness about children health care under its Community Plan and through Pennsylvania Children’s Health Insurance Program. Public service messages highlighted the importance of staying healthy and keeping a schedule of recommended check-ups and vaccinations against major diseases.
In recent years, Indonesia has generated major headlines, from a devastating tsunami triggered by an earthquake, resulting in a humanitarian effort that spanned the globe to a terroristic attack in Bali’s business district. Outbreaks of civil unrest continue in a country that is home to 76 active volcanoes, more than any other country.
–Written by Wilford Shamlin III