A Little Taste of Somewhere Else
EATING outdoors is one of the joys of warmer weather. If you forgo a seat at the local sidewalk cafe, it can also be a remarkably inexpensive way to immerse yourself in an atmosphere that seems imported from Manila; or Jakarta, Indonesia; or maybe Malmo, Sweden. Every summer, New York holds dozens of food fairs and festivals with an international flavor. You’re well advised to arrive early to scope out the selections; shed any inhibitions about pointing, so you can order “one of those” and carry small bills in one convenient pocket and extra napkins in another; and enjoy the freedom of eating on your feet. Most of all, leave room for more — who knows what’s behind that puff of smoke at the next grill.
Five fairs are especially tempting:
INDONESIAN FOOD BAZAAR May 31, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., behind Masjid al-Hikmah, 48-01 31st Avenue (at 48th Street), Astoria, Queens. (Bazaars are also planned for June, July and August.)
Several times each summer, the small parking lot outside the al-Hikmah mosque in Astoria is awash in aromas and flavors that seem straight out of an Indonesian kampung, or village. Most of the vendors are home cooks who otherwise offer their food by special order only; almost everything is $5 or less.
Look for gado-gado and lothek, a pair of vegetable salads with crunchy highlights, awash in sauce that’s hand-ground (and spiced to order) for each customer; combro, a deep-fried, chili-spiked croquette of grated cassava; satay plates of skewered beef and chicken, accompanied by peanut sauce and blocks of sticky rice; the long-simmered stew called beef rendang; chicken or beef noodle soup; and cendol, iced coconut milk laden with green rice noodles and tiny cubes of colored jelly, and laced with palm sugar.
PHILIPPINE INDEPENDENCE DAY FESTIVAL June 7, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Madison Avenue between 24th and 26th Streets, Midtown.
The festival commemorates the country’s independence from Spain, but you’ll be reminded of its long ties with the United States by the marching bands and beauty queens in the accompanying parade, and by pop-rock performers on a stage.
But in lieu of hot dogs and hamburgers, grills sizzle with skewers of chicken and beef, and slices of pork belly; even in the midafternoon crowd, you can’t miss the aroma. The vendors lining both sides of the avenue push combo platters that may run $10 or $12, but almost everything is available à la carte. Also look for chicharron bulaklak, deep-fried “pork ruffle fat”; skewered balls of ground fish with spicy sauce; fritters bedecked with shrimp; fried bananas; laing, chopped taro leaves slow-cooked with coconut milk, spices and shrimp; cuchinta, steamed rice cakes accented with shredded coconut; and halo-halo, a “mix-mix” of shaved ice, condensed milk and colorful sweets (beans, corn and yams all qualify).
SWEDISH MIDSUMMER FESTIVAL June 19, 5 to 8 p.m., Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park, near Battery Place.
This ages-old European festival (from a time when “summer” was reckoned around an older agricultural calendar) is a major holiday in Sweden, nowadays celebrated on the Friday nearest the solstice. Much of the revelry — children’s games, fiddle music, folk dancing — centers on the greenery-draped midsummer pole. Drinking songs may be on the program, too (though since this event takes place in a city park, alcoholic drinks are celebrated in absentia). Flowered headgear optional.
Many festival-goers immediately join the line for the buffet (about $20) and heap a plate with sliced salmon, meatballs, new potatoes, salad, perhaps pickled herring, while friends spread picnic blankets on the park lawn. Shorter lines lead to tables staffed by a handful of Swedish restaurants, with à la carte fare. Look for a korv, a hot dog with an indulgent garnish of shrimp salad, relish and toasted onions; and waffles with jam and whipped cream.
RAKHAING THINGYAN BURMESE NEW YEAR WATER FESTIVAL July 12, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., J.H.S. 56 schoolyard, Madison and Montgomery Streets, Lower East Side.
In steamy Burma, the Thingyan celebration typically accompanies the New Year itself, sometime in mid-April; in New York, the appropriate weather for a water festival settles in several months later. Playful splashing, and the occasional water gun, are generally confined to one corner of the festival, beside a stage for traditional Burmese song and dance, though the swelter of the blacktop schoolyard makes a good soaking increasingly attractive.
A less messy option is a bowl of shwe yin aye, whose loose translation is “something that cools you.” It drenches sticky rice, coconut, assorted colorful agars and scissor-snipped white bread in several ladles of coconut milk and tapioca pearls. Other dishes (most are about $5) include mohinga, or fish noodle soup; shrimp fritters tossed with watercress, cucumber and fish sauce; and mont kyar si, hand-rolled rice-flour dumplings with shredded coconut.
MYANMAR BAPTIST CHURCH FUN FAIR Second or third Saturday in August, noon to 6 p.m., 143-55 84th Drive (near 143rd Street), Briarwood, Queens.
Although the church itself now resides in Elmhurst, this annual afternoon of fun (low-key karaoke in Burmese and English) and fellowship (under shaded communal seating) still makes its home in a Briarwood backyard. For the day, tented tables surround the grassy enclosure, and members of the congregation dole out home cooking.
Most items are $5 or less, including a dish described by the church pastor as “near the river” rice noodles, flavored with cilantro, orange-brown fish sauce, bright yellow pickled bamboo, and red pepper, and paired with a refreshing, clear fish-and-shrimp broth. Also look for fried dough with bean paste and onion slivers (the stretching, thwacking and folding of the dough is a show in itself); papaya salad prepared before your eyes; chicken curry with noodles; a plate of chewy pork parts with cucumbers and hot sauce; and moist, dark brown banana cakes