Ena Widjojo passes the Indonesian culinary mainstay to her daughters
From where Ena Widjojo sat on a small stool, she could lean right just slightly and watch her daughter standing at the crowded six-burner stove. Maylia used two wooden spoons to mix a steaming wok of peppers, onions and tempeh, fragrant with sweet soy sauce. She paused to stir a massive pot of squash, string beans and tofu simmering in yellow coconut-milk broth. It smelled of turmeric, ginger and galangal. Maylia’s sister, Diana, rinsed a pot of rice in the back kitchen and brought it out to the giant cooker, stationed under a shelf heavy with spices.
It was just before 10 in the morning and Ena, her black hair tied back in a muslin scarf, had been the first of the family working in the kitchen. Several hours earlier, she’d started the beef rendang and left it to simmer, boiled and peeled eggs for tofu-and-egg curry and mixed chopped cabbage, green onions, and carrot to make batter for vegetable fritters.
Now she sat down to rest, sipping her Nescafé from a plastic pint container. “If I’m cooking all the time, they’re not learning,” she said, smiling.
In February, Ena—who’s been cooking every day since she and her husband, Harry, opened the now-classic Indonesian restaurant Hardena in 2001—turned the business over to her daughters. Now, 30-year-old Maylia starts in the kitchen around seven every morning, preparing at least seven dishes to fill the steam table, along with sambals and satays. Diana, 31, manages the business and cooks in the afternoon for dinner service.
Though their mom is “retired,” she still helps with prep work in the mornings and keeps watch over her daughters. She’s helping them perfect the traditional recipes that garnered a following among Indonesian immigrants as soon as they opened and are now increasingly popular among the diversifying Point Breeze population. Hardena’s casual service, substantial portions and seriously flavorful food draw lunch and dinner crowds.
Hardena has received plenty of recognition over the years and is commonly cited as the best Indonesian food in Philly. The Widjojos serve customers who regularly travel from DC and New York for dishes like ginger-fried chicken, house-fermented tempeh, sayur lodeh (collard greens cooked in coconut-milk broth) and gudeg (sweet-andsour jackfruit stew).
“Indonesian food is complex,” says Diana. “There’s always sweet, savory, spicy, sour and bitter—sometimes that’s all in one dish.” The menu at Hardena showcases popular foods with a Javanese bent; many of the recipes have been passed down from Ena’s mother.
Ena grew up on the island of Java (home to more than half of Indonesia’s population), where her mom ran a cooking school out of their home. Along with hundreds of students who came through her mom’s kitchen over the years, Ena learned to cook traditional Javanese food. And she didn’t get special treatment.
Ena recalled an assignment to make an Indonesian-Dutch thousand-layer cake, kue lapis legit. “She gave me 300 eggs to practice,” Ena says. The yolks are beaten until pale and thick, which takes about 10 minutes with an electric mixer. Ena whisked the eggs by hand, her mother throwing away her work if it wasn’t good enough. “I didn’t like cooking as a kid,” Ena says with a laugh.
But it was those skills she would come to rely on after moving to New York City in 1969, when she was 17. After working in salons and selling food on campus at NYU, she moved on to serve traditional dishes like nasi goreng (stir-fried rice) and lumpia (spring rolls) at the Indonesian consulate. “The diplomats would come down and buy whatever she had made that day,” Diana says. Her cooking grew a reputation among Indonesian immigrants. When the president of Indonesia visited the United States in 1995, he wanted Ena to prepare his meals.
“She cooked for him and his entourage—breakfast, lunch and dinner for 10 days,” Diana says. “I was just a little girl and I remember helping her with the egg rolls.” Besides the work of her daughters’ small hands, Ena only had two other helpers, Diana recalls with pride. “It was amazing. She’s really strong.”
Many of Ena’s Indonesian friends moved from New York to south Philadelphia, where she visited them. Back then, in the late nineties, Point Breeze was home to an estimated 5,000 Indonesian immigrants. Ena thought it might be just the place to open her own restaurant. To test the crowd, she cooked in her friends’ kitchens and co-hosted open houses, giving away heaping plates of food. The neighborhood’s response was encouraging. She and her husband opened their first restaurant on 2nd and Jackson Streets in 2001. “It was half as big [as Hardena] and there was always a line going out the door,” remembers Maylia.
That year, Maylia, Diana, and their youngest sister, Stephanie, were still living in Queens with a nanny, finishing high school. Ena and Harry visited them on Mondays and Tuesdays when the restaurant was closed, and the girls occasionally came to Philadelphia on the weekends to help out at the restaurant. “That was before we had the apartment next door, so we would sleep right here on the floor,” Diana says, gesturing toward the open space before the register.
left to right: Maylia, Ena, and Diana Widjojo
Along with hundreds of students who came
through her mom’s kitchen over the years,
Ena learned to cook traditional Javanese
food. And she didn’t get special treatment.
Eventually, all three sisters went to culinary school: Stephanie focused on pastry, Maylia on culinary arts, and Diana on management. Maylia joined her mother in the kitchen at Hardena in 2007, gradually learning the recipes and gaining the confidence to prepare each dish on her own.
Diana sought experience elsewhere before joining the family business. “I knew I wanted to learn something different that I could incorporate,” she says. She was also curious about the connection between Dutch and Indonesian cuisines (the Dutch colonized Indonesia in the early 19th century and maintained control until 1949). She sought out a line-cook position at Noord, where chef-owner Joncarl Lachman became an important mentor. “I learned to be more organized, to be efficient with my time and energy,” she says. She got a glimpse of what it took to run a restaurant, an experience that has helped her make improvements at Hardena since she and Maylia took over this winter.
As soon as you walk into the recently renovated restaurant, you’ll notice the gerobak, a replica of a typical street cart that Diana had custom-built by an Indonesian friend. When it’s not serving as functional décor in the restaurant, Diana hopes to sell food from it at neighborhood street bazaars—a community event she initiated this fall. “I want this area to be like an Indonesian town,” says Diana. Though many Indonesian families left during the recession, quite a few remain in the neighborhood. “I’m hoping that more people open up businesses here and showcase Indonesia.”
Showcasing Indonesia through food has been Ena’s work for more than 30 years. “I like to make Indonesian cooking known in the American culture,” she says. She’s adamant that her recipes and ingredients are traditional. (She grows chili peppers for sambal and makrut lime trees in her back garden, and when family members visit they bring galangal, yeast for tempeh and dried nutmeg blossoms in their suitcases).
It seems that her daughters are keen to carry on her commitment. Though the menu at Hardena will likely stay the same for years to come, Maylia and Diana are thinking of opening a second location, or maybe a casual brunch spot on Passyunk that would serve dadar gulung—sweet pandan pancakes stuffed with coconut.
“We’re proud to be Indonesians and we want to share it,” Diana says. Their South Philly neighbors are eager recipients, embracing the Widjojos’ home-style cooking just as they did nearly 20 years ago.
1754 S. Hicks St.,