Many joyous occasions in Indonesia, such as birthday parties, welcoming parties, and even the celebration of Indonesian Independence Day, seem to be incomplete without the presence of the one-of-a-kind cone-shaped rice dish which is known as nasi tumpeng. Although, the tradition of making nasi tumpeng for important occasions was originally practiced in Java, Madura, and Bali, nowadays it is widely known by all Indonesians.
Nasi tumpeng can be made of different kinds of rice: plain rice, nasi uduk, and nasi kuning (yellow rice). Nasi uduk is cooked with coconut milk, and other main ingredients including pandan leaf, lemongrass, and salam leaf. On the other hand, nasi kuning is cooked with coconut milk and turmeric. In Indonesian language, kuning actually means yellow. The yellow color is not made of artificial food coloring, but it comes from the turmeric which also contributes to its distinctive smell.
The cone-shaped is created by cone-shaped wood steamer or cone-shaped model made of aluminum. People usually cover the top of the cone with banana leaf. The rice, accompanied with other main dishes such as ayam panggang (grilled chicken), ayam goreng (fried chicken), telur balado (boiled egg), tempe teri kacang (spicy anchovy), scrambled omelet and steamed vegetables, is placed on a tampah which is a round woven bamboo tray. The combination of the rice, be it nasi uduk, plain rice, or nasi kuning, and the main dishes will create a top-notched taste. Nasi tumpeng will taste even more delicious with Sambal or hot chili sauce which becomes number one condiment of Indonesian people. The great variation of its side dish shows that nasi tumpeng does not only provide great taste but also rich nutrition.
Interestingly, Nasi Tumpeng is not merely about good taste. Each part of nasi tumpeng carries a philosophical value which represents Indonesian tradition. Its shape, color, and composition; they all possess certain meaning. The cone shape of nasi tumpeng is related to ancient Hindu-Buddhist belief. If you notice, the cone-shaped rice is actually shaped like mountain. It is believed that it is a model of the cosmic mountain, Mount Mahameru. Mountain is considered as a sacred place and a closest place to heaven or god(s). According to Javanese belief, mountain is considered to be a resting place for the spirits of ancestors and gods.
The shape of nasi tumpeng and the placement of main dishes are believed to represent Indonesian geographical situation which has fertile land and is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. The main dishes are placed horizontally to represent the relationship between humans. Moreover, the combination of main dishes which consist of vegetables, meats, and fish, is considered to symbolize the balance of life and nature. Each also represents the elements of water, land, air, and plants. Nasi tumpeng is usually also served with bayam (spinach) which, according to Javanese belief, represents prosperity of the society. The color of the rice also believed to have certain meanings. Plain rice is considered to symbolize purity and holiness, while nasi kuning which means yellow rice symbolizes prosperity, wealth, and success. Therefore, nasi tumpeng represents an expression of gratitude for God’s abundant blessings.
In many celebrations, the top of nasi tumpeng is usually cut and given to the most respected, oldest, or important person. It is an expression of respect and gratitude for the advice and guidance that are given. In addition, in some places in Indonesia, the tradition of nasi tumpeng is also held the night before Indonesia’s Independence Day. In this event, people usually pray for the fallen heroes who fought for the independence of Indonesia and also for the well-being and future of this country.
The tradition of nasi tumpeng has become an important part of social cultural aspect of Indonesia. It strengthens the sense of family and community, and brings people together while enjoying its delicious taste.
By Nishrin Azzely QOWAMUNA, ASEAN Correspondent from Indonesia