For Nigel Sielegar and Wenny Purnomo, Indonesian food has always been an inherent part of their lives. Having spent their formative years in Indonesia, the cousins grew up feasting on street food at night markets, enamored by the undeniable fusion of culture and cuisine.
But after moving to the states, they discovered that it’s quite difficult – and rare – to find authentic Indonesian food in New York City. So the pair teamed up (Sielegar worked for many years in a multi-disciplinary design firm and Purnomo ran a restaurant in New Jersey) to start their own food business: Moon Man.
“We agreed that we wanted to create a food that we grew up with as a kid that we cannot find in New York City,” Sielegar says. “One of them is Indonesian street dessert.”
Moon Man began as a humble vendor at the Queens Night Market, a weekly outdoor market that runs from April until October in Flushing, Queens. The market is certainly less tracked upon than New York City’s many other markets – from farmers markets to street fairs slinging mounds of fried dough and upscale food fairs like Smorgasburg – but it’s equally transportative. The parking lot behind the Queens Hall of Science houses the Saturday evening market. Here, pillars of smoke spool from over 50 tents peppered in the lot, hawking fare from a slew of countries: Burma, the Philippines, Iran, China, Moldova, Venezuela, and Ethiopia, among many others.
“The night market is part of the culture,” Sielegar says of the famed night markets in Southeast Asia. “It’s a place that you go to hang out, where you spend time with your friends [and] family. The Queens Night Market is about introducing people to different cultures.”
Moon Man proves to do just that, introducing the New York community to kue pancong, a traditional Indonesian street dessert. At its base, kue pancong is simply a coconut pancake. Slivers of coconut, coconut milk, and rice flour and pressed together into a patty, then seared in a modest cast-iron griddle until lightly charred. The result is a crisped-up coconut puck, served warm and with a smattering of toppings: chocolate sprinkles, peanut crumbles, or sesame. The most popular and authentic topping is a showering of java palm sugar, which is torched like creme brulee to caramelize the sugar, and crowned with a tangle of freshly shaved coconut ribbons.
These coconut pancakes may be hard to find in the US, but Sielegar claims they’ve become even more difficult to track down in Indonesia. Once a fundamental tenet of Indonesian cuisine – often sold unadorned by street vendors or made as a snack at home – kue pancong is disappearing. Sielegar explains that people have been cooking the treat the same way for generations, leaving little room for innovation and change. Nowadays, the younger generation has no interest in preserving or upholding the tradition, focusing instead on what’s trendy and Instagrammable.
“I used to find a lot of joy getting this kind of stuff on the street,” Sielegar remarks. “These days, it’s really hard to find. I have to hunt just to find one. It’s quite unfortunate.”
Along with kue pancong, Moon Man also peddles two other desserts. There’s the squat, neon-green pandan cake, a steamed dessert made from pandan leaf juice, flour, and eggs. Moon Man finishes each the traditional way – with a swipe of coconut paste, grated coconut, and java palm sugar – but it can also be piled with black sesame, chocolate, or crushed peanuts. The final offering is a baked or steamed cassava cake, garnished with a dollop of green pandan custard. Each cake is $4 (the Queens Night Market imposes a $6 cap on everything sold to encourage smaller bites and to frequent more vendors), but Moon Man also offers a $10 tasting menu of all three for those who want a sampling of everything.
Although still just a pop-up, Moon Man is in the works to launch its first brick-and-mortar in an upcoming Lower East Side food hall. Until that opens, Moon Man will continue popping up at the Queens Night Market, happily educating the community on Indonesia’s beloved, dying dessert.