Five things to know about tumpeng, the cone-shaped rice dish with side dishes

Traditionally, tumpeng is served with seven assorted dishes, presenting different elements of foods, such as vegetables, sea and land animals.
Traditionally, tumpeng is served with seven assorted dishes, presenting different elements of foods, such as vegetables, sea and land animals.PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - For the residents of Java, Bali and Madura islands, tumpeng (a cone-shaped serving of yellow rice accompanied by assorted side dishes) is synonymous with joyful celebrations. As the 72nd Indonesian Independence Day draws near, those wanting to host celebration parties may want to include tumpeng on the menu.

However, before ordering tumpeng from the nearest catering company, let us learn some more about the philosophy behind the traditional dish.

It represents the relationship between humans and God

Murdjati Gardjito, a researcher at food and nutrition centre at Gadjah Mada University (UGM), Yogyakarta, told kompas.com that tumpeng’s shape symbolises the relationship between humans and God. She explained that there was only a single grain on top of the tumpeng, which represented God. Meanwhile, the bottom part of the dish, which consists of larger portions and various dishes, illustrated the character of human kind and the complexity of life.

Eat from the bottom

Despite the current popular ritual of cutting the top of the tumpeng and giving it to the honoured guest in the room, Murdjati said that one should start eating tumpeng from the bottom. Since tumpeng represents the relationship between humans and God, slicing the top of tumpeng means cutting the relationship with the Almighty.

She explained that tumpeng should be eaten together with all the guests surrounding the dish.

Tumpeng was influenced by Hindu tradition

Though the dish originated on Java Island, tumpeng was influenced by Hindu tradition.

Dr. Ari Prasetiyo, Javanese language lecturer at the University of Indonesia (UI) said the concept of tumpeng derived from the 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.  

Tumpeng is an acronym

The etymology of tumpeng is uncertain. However, Ari said the word is an acronym from the Javanese sentence “Yen metu kudu mempeng,” which roughly means, “Make sure to give all you can when you come out.”

The meaning of tumpeng side dishes

Traditionally, tumpeng is served with seven assorted dishes, presenting different elements of foods, such as vegetables, sea and land animals. These dishes also offer various flavours, including sweet, sour and bitter, illustrating the different situations of life.