Nasi Tumpeng would usually be consumed during special occasions such as a birthday, a housewarming party, someone’s childbirth or circumcision, or a wedding. It is basically rice that has been moulded into the shape of a cone and is served on a large plate made out of woven bamboo along with various side dishes surrounding it.
The general rule regarding Nasi Tumpeng is that the rice would usually be Nasi Kuning (yellow rice), with the colour symbolising wealth and virtue. It is for this exact reason why Nasi Tumpeng is commonly dished out for joyous celebrations. Nasi Tumpeng has a symbolic meaning behind it: as an offering and a physical representation of gratitude towards God.
The philosophy behind Nasi Tumpeng is related to the geographical condition of Indonesia, especially on the islands of Java, Bali and Madura – areas where this dish is regularly used for ceremonies. It is shaped in a cone because it stands for the archaic tradition of the Nusantara people who held mountains in high regard as the place where their ancestors are buried. When the Javanese began to take in cultural influences from Hindu, the cone-shaped rice was recognised as a replica of the Mahameru, which they believed to be where the gods reside.
Nasi Tumpeng was still maintained as part of our culture when Islam began to enter the country. Some say that the word “tumpeng” is an acronym in the Javanese language that stands for “Yen Metu Kudu Sing Mempeng”, which roughly translates as “Make it count when you step out.” These days, however, the meaning behind Nasi Tumpeng has taken a turn as the pinnacle of gratitude towards God.
Even the side dishes have their own philosophies behind them. The general protocol is to have seven different side dishes that are required to fulfil certain rules, such as underground (tubers), land animals (chicken or cow), sea animals (fish), and overground (vegetables). Although the modern Nasi Tumpeng has undergone a series of modifications, the aforementioned side dishes have always been present.
Nasi Tumpeng can also be served using steamed rice or Nasi Uduk (rice cooked in coconut milk). Each variation of Nasi Tumpeng has its own significance. Tumpeng Robyong is usually served during the Siraman ceremony of a Javanese wedding and comprises chicken eggs, shrimp paste, and shallots with a chilli on its summit. It illustrates increasing prosperity. Tumpeng Nujuh Bulan would commonly be set out for the Javanese ceremony of Nujuh Bulanan and is made from steamed rice with a large Tumpeng in the middle surrounded by six smaller ones. It is said to contain a prayer for a baby so that he/she will be born healthy and for his/her parents to be blessed with both physical and mental strength to go through the childbirth process.
The third type of Tumpeng is Tumpeng Pungkur, which should be unheard of by the general public. Traditionally served when a single female or male passes away, it consists of steamed rice and a range of side dishes and is presented to improve the spirit of the deceased before he/she faces God. Last but not least is Tumpeng Nasi Uduk or Tumpeng Tasyakuran, which is enjoyed when celebrating Maulid Nabi – the birthday of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.