Experiencing an Asia Beyond China and India
Experiencing an Asia Beyond China and India
By SETH KUGEL - New York Times, 9/21/2008
WHAT with three Chinatowns to choose from, cabs driven by legions of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and nightly colonization of St. Marks Place by the Japanese, finding Asia in New York is hardly a challenge. But hiding in the shadows are cultural and culinary gems from Asian countries that, for reasons of history or demographics, did not send huge numbers of immigrants or expats to the city.
Bhutan (and Nepal)
The Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea specializes in Himalayan art and has to be one of the most pleasant museum experiences in the city. One flight up the steel-and-marble spiral staircase from the sprawling cafe is an introduction to the art and religion of the Himalayas. Grab a free magnifying glass and let the fine detail of the intricate works jump to life.
Opening this weekend and running through Jan. 5, “The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan” is billed as the first comprehensive exhibition of art in the United States to come from this long-isolated mountain kingdom. Accompanying the show are Bhutanese Buddhist monks, who play the unusual role of “spiritual chaperone” to the works brought from Bhutanese religious institutions for the show. (And Oct. 11 is “Bhutan! Family Day” — you don’t see that very often.)
Tack on Nepal by motoring through the third floor, where “From the Land of the Gods: Art of the Kathmandu Valley” gives an overview of Nepalese art. And don’t miss the gift shop, which sells the cutest stuffed yaks in the city.
Two restaurants in Chinatown specializing in Malaysian cuisine offer an added incentive to visitors: finding them requires wending your way through quiet corners of an otherwise raucous neighborhood. Sanur is in a basement on Doyers Street, an oddly crooked block that feels more like the back street of a medieval village than Manhattan.
That’s cool, and the chicken satay is meaty and good, but in pure culinary terms you’ll be better off at the New Malaysia Restaurant. It’s in the Chinatown Arcade, a quirky covered passage running between the Bowery and Elizabeth Street. The menu lists a few dishes as “uniquely Malaysian,” like the satay, which is skimpier than at Sanur, a noodle dish called cho kueh teow, and curry beef brisket. The staff seems trained to shoo non-Asian diners away from another Malaysian specialty, asam laksa, a sour, fishy lemongrass soup that doesn’t make the list. For foodies, of course, this is a call to arms: they will insist on ordering and pretend asam laksa is the best thing they’ve ever tasted. (Note: it takes some pretending.)
They may be one the biggest immigrant groups in the United States, but for some reason Filipinos never flocked to New York. But they will be flocking to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday, Sept. 28, at 2 p.m. for the Feast Day Mass of San Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino saint. If you can’t make that — or even if you can — a more tangible feast is available anytime at Grill 21 in the Gramercy Park neighborhood. With its burger-and-fries name and side-street location, it has done a fine job of hiding from everyone but Filipinos, who head there for comfort food around brunchtime on weekends — and a menu that features tysilog, which is garlic rice, eggs and a dried, salted fish called tuyo that you dunk in a salty sauce.
There are a few Cambodian restaurants in Manhattan, and in the handful of Southeast Asian neighborhoods in the Bronx. But you can visit the country via the South and Southeast Asian Art Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum. Look for the seven-headed sculpture called “Bust of Hevajra,” a Khmer-style piece from the late 12th or early 13th century. If you’re thinking, “But isn’t Hevajra usually portrayed with eight heads?” you’re right: the eighth head would have been on top.
If you will be in town between Oct. 28 and Nov. 2, you’ll also have the chance to see two teenage Cambodian dancers, known as Charian and Peace, perform “Hunger” with the duo of the Japanese-born choreographer/dancers Eiko and Koma at the Joyce Theater. When this foursome performed at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., in 2007, the Times critic Alastair Macaulay wrote: “The young performers give it a quality quite unlike that of their elders: tragic they-know-not-what-they-do innocence, whereas Eiko and Koma always seemed to have been weathered by time and feeling. It works, beautifully.”
With 235 million people (and 17,000 islands), Indonesia is one of the world’s most populous nations. But the few Indonesian restaurants in Manhattan get mixed reviews from natives. Minangasli, in Queens, gets great reviews (from both natives and The Times) but is a hike for just a meal.
On the other hand, there’s a real cultural experience (with a meal) to be had at the Indonesian Cultural Center, which for years served up Saturday lunches in its space in Elmhurst, Queens. Women staffed a few tables, dishing out things like gado gado — a vegetable salad with peanut sauce. Downstairs, a small shop sold soda and packaged Indonesian meals like minced porkballs and chocolate banana pastry.
But the lunches are on hiatus until October, when the center moves into its new digs nearby. Be sure to call before you make the trip: the place may be an Indonesian gem, but it’s still a New York City eating place, which means it will almost certainly experience an unforeseeable delay.
FOOD AND ART
Grill 21, 346 East 21st Street; (212) 473-5950.
Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street; (212) 620-5000; www.rmanyc.org. Adult admission: $10.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street; (212) 535-7710; www.metmuseum.org. Suggested adult admission: $20.
Sanur, 18 Doyers Street; (212) 267-0088.
New Malaysia Restaurant, 46-48 Bowery Street, in Chinatown Arcade; (212) 964-0284.
Minangsli, 86-10 Whitney Avenue, Elmhurst, Queens; (718) 429-8207.
Indonesian Cultural Center, 85-12 Queens Boulevard (as of October), Elmhurst, Queens; (718) 606-0367.