Shortly before the American Civil War, Dutch colonialists transported 13,000 ethnic Chinese from Indonesia to Dutch Guiana in South America. After an indenture of 10 years (during which many of the European planters died of jungle diseases), the immigrants started their own farms and formed a community. In the ensuing decades, the Dutch preferred to use laborers from India, but between 1890 and 1940, they were able to shanghai an additional 33,000 Indonesians, who came to comprise 15 percent of the population in the country now known as Suriname. These Javanese have managed to retain their cultural identity via gamelan orchestras, wayangs kulit (shadow-puppet plays), and food-hawker stalls known as warung-warung.
Richmond Hill, Queens, now has its own Surinamese-Indonesian hawker stall: Warung Kario’s melding of influences from Indonesia, China, Holland, and the Caribbean is astonishing to behold. The cafe is comfortable and modern, with a steam table that displays many of its most popular dishes, which appear fresh and immaculate. The friendly staff delights in explaining the provender to the uninitiated.
Miraculously, given the lapse of time since the Indonesians immigrated, there are items nearly unreconstructed from their Javanese originals. Among these are enormous chicken sates ($2) every bit as good as those at Elmhurst warung-warung like Mi Jakarta. They come drenched in a dark and chunky peanut sauce that owes nothing to peanut butter. Luckily, the sauce is an excellent one, since you’ll be seeing it again and again.
That same sauce drenches baka bana, battered and fried sweet plantains, and petjel ($6), a toss of steamed cabbage and bean sprouts that resembles Indonesian gado-gado. One can easily imagine the original Indonesians in Suriname making the dish with the impoverished list of vegetables available on the sugar plantations, thus creating the form in which the salad has come down to us. Competing in the salad category-and making Warung Kario something of a paradise for vegetarians-is goedangan, a coconut-dressed toss of bean sprouts, boiled eggs, and long, green yard beans (known as “dau gok” in China and “kacang panjang” in Malaysia) cut into segments. “What do you call those beans?” I asked the cook, hoping for a Dutch or Indonesian term. “String beans,” was her reply.
Seemingly very southern Chinese is the cuisine’s signature on bamie ($8)-not to be confused with the Jamaican manioc fritters called “bammy.” In this case, bamie is a scrumptious lo mein, slicked with not the thick soy sauce that southern Chinese prefer, but a salt-laced black-palm syrup. I swear it looks just like soy sauce, though the flavor is sweeter. Topping the bamie are small bone-in pieces of chicken matted with crushed black peppercorns. On the side, find a few slices of cucumber, some pickled purple onions of the kind common in Caribbean cuisines, and a small cup of chunky and tongue-searing Scotch bonnet paste, constituting one of the Indonesian-style relishes called “sambals.” An Indonesian-American friend noted that bamie is called “bakmi” in Jakarta and is usually served with a topping of mushrooms, meatballs, or chicken. Street vendors vie to see who can produce the best rendition.
The chicken on the bamie is mouthwatering. It recurs in nasie ($9), the Surinamese take on stir-fried rice, which arrives on a large plate sided with more of the sauteed yard beans seen in goedangan. Another transfigured Javanese standard is the soup called saoto ($6). Even slurped without use of the accompanying condiments, the potage is magnificent-shreds of dark and light chicken in a diaphanous broth, tweaked with cilantro and caramelized onions. But add the Scotch bonnet sambal and faux-soy sauce, and the soup detonates.
The most fusion-y thing on the menu handily incorporates all of the influences mentioned above. Teloh ($7.50) is a magnificent plate of food: a combination of fried plantains, salt cod incorporated into a fish salad, lumpy eggplant pure, fish-based sambal, and batons of fried manioc, a tuber native to Africa. But where are the Dutch influences? They tend to be seen in the free-standing snacks and desserts not incorporated into other dishes. Pateis (weekends only, $3 each) are miniature chicken pot pies. Even more Dutch are the pastries that perch above the steam table on the metal counter. These vary by day, but on one occasion, we grabbed some peanut cookies ($2) that were paragons of their type, nutty and crumbly and buttery, reminding us that “cookie” is a Dutch word.
When I told my Indonesian friend about them, she noted, “We don’t have anything like that in Indonesia anymore-it’s difficult to even find butter.”