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Food for Thought

Nasi Tumpeng - made from scratch


Nasi Tumpeng

Today, Nasi Tumpeng has evolved into a dish that is unique and different based on regional variation. There are different types of tumpeng such as Tumpeng Duplak, Tumpeng Robyong and Tumpeng Megana. Nasi Tumpeng is now used in many different occasions such as weddings, birthday parties and celebrations. 2 of the most popularly served nasi tumpeng are Tumpeng Robyong and Tumpeng Megana.

Tumpeng Robyong represents the hope for long lasting well-being and success with the support of the community. Hence this type of tumpeng is often served at job promotions and wedding ceremonies.

Tumpeng Megana is served with the purpose of asking for blessing by the gods to bring about happiness and growth in life. Additionally, it is a way to thank the Gods for all that we have been given as the word megana derives from “Mergane ono” which means that mankind only exists through the goodness of God. Hence, this blogpost contains information on Nasi Tumpeng’s origins and its significance. 

  Tumpeng feast during IGDA (Indonesian Graphic Design Award) 2010. Salihara Gallery, South Jakarta, Indonesia. By Gunawan Kartapranata. [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Tumpeng feast during IGDA (Indonesian Graphic Design Award) 2010. Salihara Gallery, South Jakarta, Indonesia. By Gunawan Kartapranata. [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL]. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Tumpeng is an abbreviation for “tumapaking penguripan tumindak lempeng tumuju pangeran.” Which means that when living in the world, humans have to abide by the rules and regulations towards the almighty one (God). Nasi Tumpeng was used as an offering for the gods in the mountains. This dish originated from the Mataram/Medang Kingdom era. 

Mataram/Medang kingdom was a Buddhist-Hindu kingdom located in Central Java. It flourished and thrived between the 8th and 10th century. The kingdom is most famous for its candi (temple). Both Candi Borobudur and Candi Prambanan, which are named as world heritage sites by UNESCO, were built by this kingdom. This dish was born from the assimilation of both the Buddhist-Hindu belief and the native Javanese culture.

According to ancient Buddhism and Hindu belief, the cone shape of tumpeng represents Mount Mahameru. Mount Mahameru is an active volcano that is situated in East Java. It is believed to be the dwelling place of all revered ancestral spirits and the gods where heaven meets earth. Because it is an offering to the god, every single aspect of the dish such as the ingredients used and the placement of the side dish carries a great importance.

 Dandang. By Tropenmuseum, [CC BY-SA 3.0]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Dandang. By Tropenmuseum, [CC BY-SA 3.0]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

 Basa Sunda: Aseupan. By Uchup19. [CC BY-SA 3.0]. Via Wikimedia Commons

Basa Sunda: Aseupan. By Uchup19. [CC BY-SA 3.0]. Via Wikimedia Commons

Traditionally, Nasi Tumpeng is made by using the fire from the woods which are contained in a stone fire pit. The fire would then heat up the water in the container (dandang) which would then also heat up the object that mold and contain the rice (aseupan). Each and every one of this element and object represents something significant to the people.

Fire represents the Sun, Coal represents Earth, container (dandang) represents the mountain, water represents the source of life, the object that contains and mold the rice (aseupan) represents the lava below the volcano, wood represents plants and the forest and rice represents fertility and prosperity. Today, Nasi Tumpeng is cooked using modern cookwares such as pan, rice cooker, stove and cooking pots. 



Furthermore, each ingredient in the side dishes has a meaning to it. These meaning symbolizes and represents the people’s values and hopes during the Mataram/Madang Kingdom era. The most commonly used ingredients in the 8th -10th century to prepare Nasi Tumpeng are:

  • Kangkung (water spinach) are able to grow in both land and water, hence it reminds us that humans must be flexible and learn to adapt to the environment regardless of the conditions.
  • Bayam (Spinach) symbolizes serenity, state of peace and safety
  • Bean sprouts and srouted mugbeans are able to grow in a creative response despite their size, hence this emphasizes on the fact and man should be creative and use their personal resources to achieve success.
  • Long beans which left whole and not cut represents longevity and patience. Furthermore, it also teaches us that man must think deeply before acting
  • Chicken, particularly roosters, are associated with attributes such as unfaithful, conceited, arrogant and ignorant of family issues. Hence to slaughter and cook a rooster symbolizes you “killing” all these bad qualities in you.
  • Catfish lives in low riverbed and can survive in stagnant water. This teaches us that we should have resilience and tenacity in life despite the difficulties, be humble when you are successful and do not hesitate to pursue a career from the ground.
  • Milkfish has a huge amount of subtle thorn which represent the number of luck the people have. It also a prayer hoping that people can have sustenance and grow as much as the thorns in the fish.
  • Anchovies always live in a cluster, and this emphasizes on the fact that humans should have harmony and cooperation as people cannot live alone and will require other’s help as well.
  • Eggs with its shell represent the fact that we must plan before acting, follow through with the plan and evaluate the result. Furthermore, it should that god made us all the same and what differentiates us is our behavior and manners.
  • Red chili represents the fire that provides illumination and enlightenment that will benefit themselves and others.
  • Rice that we must pick and consume must come from a clean source since anything we eat will turn into our own blood and flesh. Additionally, the yellow colour represents the eras mankind have been through whether it is in glory or downfall and the experience mankind has acquired over their existence. Lastly, the unity in the mass of rice grains represents the sincerity of those who are asking for welfare and happiness from god.

Today, the ingredients used in the side dishes has developed and grown. Due to the progress of trade, globalization and types of ingredients available, the variety of side dishes is only limited to man’s imagination. Examples of side dishes used today that were not used during the Mataram Kingdom era are Krupuk (tapioca crackers), perkedel (mashed potato fritters), Beef rendang (curried beef) and durian roll. But this does not mean that we have forgotten the original meaning and purpose of nasi tumpeng as majority of the nasi tumpeng still have side dishes which comprises of rice, fish, eggs, vegetable and meat which represent the value of the present people.



   Na Vosa Vakaviti:    Nampah adalah salah satu alat yang dipakai untuk merampi bers. By PL09Puryono [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Na Vosa Vakaviti: Nampah adalah salah satu alat yang dipakai untuk merampi bers. By PL09Puryono [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Next, we have the presentation of Nasi Tumpeng. Collectively, the entire Nasi Tumpeng represents our ecosystem on earth. The side dishes represent the richness of nature, fertility of the land surrounding the mountain and content of the world. On the other hand, the rice and the steepness of the cone signify the relationship between God and man. The highest point represents God, who rules the universe which is represented by rest of the cone. It also emphasizes the holiness and sanctity of the dish. The dish is served in a tampah base (winnow) which suggests a mighty mountain and volcano which is supporting the live around it. Banana leaves, which are used as decorations, are used to represent the God almighty as the shape resembles the sun. 

The dishes on a tumpeng has a very specific order of sequence according to the sunlight and time:

1. Purwa, which represents the east, is where the chicken dish is located. Purwa symbolizes the start of the day and the start of mankind itself. Chicken is located here as they would wake up when the sun rises.

2. Daksina, which represents the south, is where all the farm goods such as vegetables are located. Daksina represents afternoon, which is also when prosperity takes place and all the farms can be cultivated. Hence this is where the farm goods are located.

3. Pasima, which represents the west, is where goods that have been processed from plants are located. Pasima represents the evening, which symbolizes the prosperity of a kingdom dying down. Hence processed foods which would last longer are located here.

4. Utara, which represents the north, is where the meat and seafood are located. Utara represents the night, which is when kingdoms and civilizations fall apart to save all the other creatures in the world. Hence this is where the animals are located.

5. Madya, which represents the center of all, is where the Nasi Kuning (yellow rice) is located.  Madya also represents the controller of time and it is believed to return Earth to the way it was before humans destroyed it. 

 Woman cooking ketupat. By  Ch Sj Dt Tumenggung. [Public Domain]. Via Wikimedia commons.

Woman cooking ketupat. By Ch Sj Dt Tumenggung. [Public Domain]. Via Wikimedia commons.

While the presentation and ingredients play a huge role in representing the people’s wishes and aspirations, the preparation of Nasi Tumpeng is also significant and is a strictly monitored as well. The adult men and women have their own separate task and part to play in the preparation. Only Adult women who are not having menstrual period are allowed to make the rice. This process symbolizes Mother Earth shaping the Earth and preparing the life for humans. Hence during this process, no one is allowed to talk or touch the woman. On the other hand, men would be preparing the side dishes. When both are served together, they become a story with messages and advices.

In conclusion, Nasi Tumpeng is significant to both people in the past and present-day. It carries a very special meaning which signifies complete unity. The ingredients used embody the principles, aspirations and ambitions of the people. The unique display and arrangement mirrors the ecosystem which we treasure in the nature. The tall cone shape inspires a sense of hope to the people, suggesting that the quality of life will improve and we will continue to progress. It also represents a perfect life continuum, showing how humankind came from God and will also return to God.