Tumpeng, a symbol of gratitude. The philosophy behind Nasi Tumpeng is related to the geographical condition of Indonesia, especially on the islands of Java and Madura, where this dish is regularly shared during selametan—a ceremony that takes place before any special ceremony to give and receive blessings. Some say, the cone shaped rice defines the ancient tradition and belief of the locals who held mountains in high regard as the place where their ancestors are buried.
Bu Murdijati Gardjito, Food Science professor at Gajah Mada University, also explained that even though archeologists have been researching about this dish, there are still no evidence on when it started to appear in the Java island. “The cone-shaped rice is supposedly imitating Mount Mahameru— from one of the languages in India. Again, this has something to do with the migration of people from India to the South. Before the 14th century, Aceh has become world’s spice trading center, making them an acculturation magnet between nations,” she explained.There aren’t many information on the variations of tumpeng outside of Java, but there is one tumpeng from Borneo called nasi astakona. According to the book “Pusaka Cita Rasa Indonesia V”, “nasi astakona, a local dish from Borneo in which they stack the rice and the condiments on top of talam kuningan, it has a round shape and odd storeyed—three to five storey”.
The name originates from the abbreviation from ‘yen metu kudu mempeng’ which means when you do something, you have to do it whole heartedly and passionately. The dish itself is originated on Java Island, but it was influenced by Hindu tradition. One Javanese language lecturer at the University of Indonesia, Dr. Ari Prasetiyo, said that the concept of tumpeng was taken from an old Javanese manuscript ‘Tantu Pangelaran’, which regarded the peak of Mount Semeru in East Java, known as Mahameru, as the place of gods. Hence, tumpeng represents the shape of a mountain.The most important tumpeng guideline is that it is served with seven types dishes, each represents different elements of food, such as vegetables, sea and land animals. With a balance flavor of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, representing the different situations of life. The number seven in Javanese is pitu which means pitulungan or pertolongan in bahasa Indonesia, or help in english. There are some controversy on how to eat tumpeng the right way, but we’ll tell you all about it later (wink).