Nasi tumpeng is iconic when it comes to Indonesia’s traditional celebratory cuisine. It has come to represent Indonesian culture and way of life through its variety of ingredients, colours, shape and its ‘serving’ tradition. Seen at birthdays, anniversaries, business openings, weddings, it is ubiquitous with celebration, but despite how commonplace it is, it turns out we’ve been serving this historic dish all wrong. Let us share the tumpeng philosophy which contains local wisdom and proper tradition.
Tumpeng is, as always in Indonesia, a portmanteau. It is the abbreviation of the Javanese words tumungkula sing mempeng: tumungkula meaning bowing and mempeng meaning diligently. ‘Bowing diligently’ has been interpreted as a religious reminder to pray, to bow before God.
A Mountain of Rice
Now the origins of this sacred dish is unclear, but it is believed to be of Javanese creation sometime between the 5th and 15th centuries. The tumpeng features rice in the shape of a cone, symbolic of a mountain: as mountains are revered in the Hindu religion, it is believed that the dish came about when Hinduism was the dominant religion of the archipelago. The top of mountains are believed to be the abode of the gods. Other evidence to support this theory is the symbolisms of colour — with the white rice symbolic of Indra, God of the Sun, marking the start and the end of each day. The yellow represents fortune and prosperity. However, after Islam became the dominant religion, the meaning of the tumpeng shifted to a form of gratitude to God.
As mentioned, tumpeng is rice shaped into a mountain, which stands at the centre of a wickerwork plate commonly made from bamboo (called tampah) which is covered by banana leaf. Around the mountain of rice, a variety of side dishes are found, including vegetables, noodles, shredded chicken, scrambled and boiled eggs, tempe and much more. It is the ultimate sharing ‘nasi campur’.
Rice: at the centre, as the most important Javanese crop, the source of energy of people. Chicken: cooked with coconut milk and saffron, called ingkung, from the word manengkung, which again means to sincerely pray to God. Eggs are boiled and served with the shell, reflecting the idea that in the beginning of life, all humans were created equal. Vegetables: mixed and steamed and seasoned with grated coconut making into ‘urap’, symbolic of a safe and peaceful life, avoiding conflict. Water spinach (kangkung) can live both in water and on land, therefore, a person hopefully can live through every condition. String beans (kacang panjang) are a symbol of longevity and thoughtfulness. Catfish, a fish that can live in a pond without flowing water which means that a person should prepare himself for every trouble and hardship that may come in life. Milkfish, known to have a lot of bones as a symbol of the hope of a person to have plenty of fortune as much as the amount of milkfish bones. And, anchovies, small fish in the sea which cluster together, symbolic of a life of cooperation.
The Right Way to Eat Tumpeng
At the very tip-top of every tumpeng, there is a single grain of rice. This is said to be symbolic of God Almighty. Thus, cutting the tumpeng at the top is in fact a violation of this mountain philosophy – that God is above, and people are below! In ritual, the correct way to eat tumpeng is from the bottom up. Traditionally, groups would eat together with their hands, enjoying the rice and the sides from the base. Then slowly move up. Finally, the top will fall and join the rest — this completes the philosophy of manunggaling kawulo lan Gusti which means God is the place where all creatures return. The emergence of the habit of cutting the tumpeng from above comes from the influence of Western culture, like cutting the cake.