MEET THE RESTAURATEUR
Jazz Pasay, Owner of Bali Kitchen
Nestled right at the heart of East Village, New York City, is a small and chic Indonesian restaurant. Bali Kitchen, owned by Indonesian immigrant Jazz Pasay, features an industrial chic decor which blends in well with the East Village aesthetic. This neighborhood is unique because the 1960s brought about an influx of musicians, artists, and hippies drawn to low rent prices. Bali Kitchen’s white-painted exposed brick wall and dark wood tabletops contrast with the silvery metal chairs and the stark black exterior. This combination with a glass storefront creates a beautiful setting to eat delicious food.
Bali Kitchen is only a few blocks away from the iconic New York deli, Katz delicatessen. But not to worry, Bali Kitchen holds its own.
Jazz Pasay, the owner of Bali Kitchen, is a warm and put together individual who is a confluence of Indonesian culture. His passion to share Indonesian food as a vehicle for culture is contagious. He was born in Manado, a city on Sulawesi island but grew up in Surabaya, East Java island spending much time in Bali and eventually moved to the capital city, Jakarta. His menu is inspired by his vibrant and island-hopping style upbringing. Pasay takes the best dish from every city and showcases them in his menu, thereby bringing the best of Indonesia to New York City.
Jazz Pasay, the owner of Bali Kitchen, holding a plate of fake rambutans (an Indonesian fruit)
“I immigrated straight to New York City,” said Pasay. He worked for American, Chinese, Korean and Japanese restaurants before ultimately opening Bali Kitchen.
Pasay opened this restaurant in September of 2017 with the mission of sharing Indonesian culture to New Yorkers. New York City is already well known for its ethnic diversity and charming multicultural society, so introducing Indonesian food and culture is another great addition to this already breathtaking city.
Pasay’s mother owned a small catering business in Jakarta where he was introduced to the importance food plays in shaping identity and forging relationships among people. While Pasay helped his mother in the kitchen occasionally, he still owns a fashion business in Jakarta that has been operating for the last 20 years called Jazz Pasay & SAMAR costume & beyond.
Head Chef, David Silva Perez, cooking in the kitchen of Bali Kitchen
Pasay gets his aromatics, spices, and ingredients from an Indonesian grocery store in Chinatown as well as from Amherst, Queens. According to Pasay, there is a large and thriving Indonesian community in Queens and supermarkets with imported Indonesian goods are abundant in the area.
Interior of Bali Kitchen.
Pasay’s genuine need to share his culture comes through when asked about his clientele. He knows them very well, already categorizing the restaurant eaters into three groups. His familiarity with who eats at his restaurant reflects his passion to share his culture to both those who don’t know it and those already familiar with it. He explains the first group are local New Yorkers who live in East Village. Second come New Yorkers who have, according to Pasay, “certain connection to Indonesia, either they have been to Indonesia or they have family members or friends who are Indonesian”. And thirdly, are Indonesian tourists who need some taste of home after traveling to the States.
BEING GAY IN INDONESIA
Pasay immigrated in 2012 through his husband. Pasay said, “Gay marriage over there [in Indonesia] is very illegal so I just moved here [New York City].” Pasay married his husband in June 2012 while in the process of applying for gay asylum, he said, “Lucky us, before submitting the file, the US federal government legalized same-sex marriage in June 2013.”
The Indonesian LGBT community is subject to discrimination and hate crimes. Indonesia is a Muslim majority country and religion is very closely tied with politics, thereby affecting public policy. Religious norms hold strong beliefs that make it dangerous for Indonesians to express their sexuality and many face threats to their lives, such as flogging punishments in Aceh. Same-sex marriage is not recognized and same-sex couples are not protected under the eyes of the law. Recently, the political climate is increasingly hostile as sharia-supporting terrorist fundamentalist Muslim groups have gained more support.
OBSTACLES FACED IN AMERICA
Pasay talks about the hardships he faced with opening a restaurant in America. For instance, Indonesian cuisine may simply be too exotic and therefore practically unheard of to many Americans. This lack of exposure is a significant barrier to bringing customers to his restaurant. Pasay said, “Not many people are familiar with Indonesian food so it’s hard for them to instantly get drawn to it.”
Further, there was a difference in workplace dynamics that needed to get some getting used to; such as the relationship between employer and employee is more hierarchical back in Indonesia. Pasay said, “It’s just harder to manage people because this is America and it’s not like in Indonesia where you can just ask people to do things. Here it’s a different dynamic.”
Pasay also mentions health regulations as an unexpected obstacle. Pasay said, “In Indonesia, you serve food at room temperature and it’s okay. But here everything has to be hot and cooked right away. If you leave the food out for a long time the health department would give us sanctions.” What makes it difficult, according to Pasay, “our food has different varieties [of cooking methods]: one is baked, grilled, fried, steamed and so you really have to be able to manage the time.”
Indonesia is home to over 300 ethnic groups and this presents a uniquely diverse and incredibly wide range of dishes. Indonesia is a large exporter of spices which leads to crazy flavor combinations in their food. From his menu, Pasay recommends Nasi Campur Bali, Rendang, and Nasi Goreng. He said, “Those three are very popular.”
Bali Kitchen’s food is authentic and traditional, with hardly any American influence. According to Pasay, the taste may seem diluted to some people “because of the spice itself. We [him and his chefs] cannot get the fresh one so we’re subjected with the dried ones so as a result, it’s not really rich like in Indonesia. But in terms of authenticity, we employ/add the whole thing according to the traditional authentic recipe.”
My first visit I decided to order the house special Nasi Campur Bali, which literally translates to Rice Mix Bali. This dish is incredibly complex with nine different toppings (yes, nine) on top of rice plated over banana leaves served with a side of extra hot chili paste. Nasi Campur Bali acts much like a microcosm of Indonesian cultural identity- separate components that all come beautifully together in a delicious dish. Nasi Campur Bali includes chicken marinated in a combination of Indonesian herbs topped with grated coconut flakes, peanuts, egg topped with chilli sauce, tempeh (fried fermented soybean), green beans, fried shallots, krupuk (deep fried cracker), sate lilit (chicken skewer marinated in Indonesian herbs) and some battered and fried miscellaneous vegetables. If you like your food sweet, I definitely recommend topping it off with the in house sweet soy sauce called kecap manis that they provide on the countertop next to the cutlery.
Going clockwise: Jamu drink, chilli sauce, krupuk and Nasi Campur Bali (House Special dish).
For the accompanying beverage, Bali Kitchen has a wide range to choose from, including but not limited to durian juice, coconut water, iced lychee or rambutan, and sweetened iced teas (famously teh botol and teh kotak). I chose the traditional Indonesian drink, Jamu which is a blend of turmeric, tamarind, black pepper, and yacon syrup. The thin, dark orangey liquid was surprisingly pleasant despite the unconventional mix of ingredients and perfectly complements the main course because it cuts right through the intense spiciness of the added chili. Traditionally, Jamu is a medicinal drink but here it takes on a milder taste, while still staying true to the health benefits of its original inspiration.
My second visit I ordered Nasi Goreng Kampung, fried rice with dried fish and shrimp paste. This dish is topped with eight toppings: sliced cucumbers, sliced tomatoes, shrimp crackers, pickled vegetables, fried onions, fried egg, dried fish and dried shrimp. Nasi Goreng Kampung is a staple, everyday food for Indonesians and has an incredibly strong flavor profile that can only be achieved using a variety of spices.
Nasi Goreng Kampung
Bali Kitchen doubles not only as a restaurant but a catering service- with a secret menu. Pasay mentions that with the cold New York winter season, offices and private events order food for large groups. They famously prepare Nasi Tumpeng, an elaborate and colorful feast centered around yellow, aromatic infused rice shaped in an inverted cone. Pasay smiles when he mentions that those who call for this service are almost always Indonesians because they are familiar with what they want and ask him to prepare special orders like terasi and ikan asin which are sometimes unfeasible to cook in the small restaurant kitchen. But don’t be intimidated, Pasay is very friendly and is willing to cater to newcomers who have no idea that they would be in for such a treat!
Nasi Tumpeng catering order. Image courtesy of Bali Kitchen.
Nasi Tumpeng is an extremely significant dish to Indonesian cultural and historical identity. It dates far back to ancient Indonesian tradition that revered mountains as spirits. Read more about the symbolic and philosophical meanings and the complex beliefs about Nasi Tumpeng in this article.
SITUATION NOW IN INDONESIA
Indonesia was hit particularly bad throughout 2018 by a series of earthquakes and tsunamis that caused numerous casualties namely in the regions of Java, Sumatra, Lombok, and Sulawesi. The worst of which struck Sulawesi last September which killed over 2,000 people. Despite Indonesia’s unfortunate familiarity with earthquakes and tsunamis, there is a lack of infrastructure available to prevent high casualties. Death and injuries could have been mitigated or avoided but instead, the government failed to maintain warning systems that would have saved many lives.
CNN covered an article about what went wrong with Indonesia’s early tsunami warning system, which highlights the country’s failure to warn its citizens due to “vandalism, limited budget, and technical damage to tsunami buoys”, according to Supoto Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for Indonesia’s National Board for Disaster Management.
Despite the natural disasters that occur seemingly frequently in the area and questionable human rights issues, Indonesia remains a fascinating place to visit. To get a small taste of that Indonesian spirit, visit Bali Kitchen, right here in the Big Apple. You won't be sorry.
128 E 4th Street • New York, NY 10003
Hours: Everyday from 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
About the Author
Isabel is an adventurous eater and will happily go out of her culinary comfort zone. She’s constantly obsessed with finding her new favorite food and trying the craziest foods. As an avid traveler, she believes food is the perfect way to bridge the gaps between people of different cultures.