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How My Favorite Dish, Tumpeng, Helps Me Connect With My Javanese Culture and Community

Photo: Getty Images/Satoshi-K
While many folks in America tend to celebrate their biggest milestones in life with cake—be it weddings, birthdays, or graduation—I had a conical turmeric rice dish called tumpeng for all of mine.

Tumpeng, pronounced ‘toom-puhng’, is a traditional Javanese dish comprised of cone-shaped rice, either made of turmeric, coconut milk, or plain white rice, with a variety of side dishes surrounding it. The choice of side dishes are optional, but the most commonly-served ones include a shredded omelet or a boiled egg sambal, turmeric-spiced chicken, fried anchovies, and stir-fry or blanched veggies.

Growing up in both Indonesia and Oklahoma, my mother would always make sure that through whatever celebration we were going to have, Indonesian food would be present. This was even more true when we decided to move to Oklahoma indefinitely. My mother would always say, “a meal is not a meal without rice or sambal,” and most times I would assume it was because her palate was simply more used to what she had back in Indonesia. But as I grew older, I realized that her dedication to serving Indonesian food at family gatherings far transcended what she had growing up. It was, in essence, a way for all of us to connect with and honor our culture and its rich history.

You see, nourishing oneself is a righteous act of self love—and not just in the nutritional sense. I’ve always thought that food in wellness was about eating the healthiest dishes and choosing what we would label as “good for you,” but as it turns out, it's actually about recognizing its value to ourselves and to our communities. Today, when I think about the word “nourishing,” I have come to consider the complex and deeply significant ways that food can be a source of connection to my identity and to my culture.

And that’s where tumpeng comes in. It’s not just about cooking a special meal for a large party: Serving tumpeng, for me, is an opportunity to introduce new palates to the prized Indonesian flavors, cuisine, and culture I've loved for my entire life. But more importantly, it's a reminder of life in my country—it's about coming home.

Serving tumpeng as a celebratory meal

For many Indonesians such as myself, no celebration goes by without serving the oldest and most traditional Javanese dish: tumpeng. The beautiful spread of boiled egg sambal, stir-fry bean sprouts and tempeh, spiced grilled chicken, and more all surrounding a cone-shaped rice is, in my mind, pure joy.

Much like how birthdays aren’t just birthdays until we blow the candles and cut the cake, the same goes with any event that serves tumpeng: Everyone gathers around the dining table, admiring the vibrant array of food spread across, with the conical turmeric rice centered in the middle. The host or main person of the event stands next to the meal, ready to serve the dish by cutting the rice traditionally from the bottom (or more commonly nowadays, from the top).

Serving tumpeng during the biggest milestones in life was a huge blessing for me and my community, especially in Oklahoma. Many Indonesians there immigrated during the late '90s, with nearly three decades passed since they left Indonesia.

The philosophical meaning behind tumpeng

Food serves as more than just fuel for our bodies, it becomes a memory, a retelling of a story, connecting us to history, and bringing people together in monumental ways. And when I asked myself why do we serve tumpeng exactly, I found that that meal had its own story to tell.

When all the side ingredients come together, they represent more than just a beautiful display of food. Stories and cultures have come and gone and changed throughout generations, but historically from what we know, each part of the tumpeng represents a part of our self-growth:

  • Cone-shaped rice as Mount Mahameru. The base of this traditional Javanese dish, rice, is considered both a staple to an everyday Indonesian meal and a sacred ingredient in Hindu belief. Whether it's plain white, turmeric yellow, or coconut milk rice, the way the rice is molded is believed to represent the mythical Mount Mahameru, a golden mountain that once served as a sanctuary for gods. In Indonesian culture, this symbolizes the notion that the tip of the rice is of higher being, and that as humans we all start from the bottom, navigating through life as we aspire to be enlightened and better than where we are now—or to simply be closer to our higher spiritual beliefs.
  • Chicken and eggs represent land animals. Turmeric-spiced chicken and boiled eggs with sambal are the two most common side dishes in Indonesian cuisine. Chicken is, funnily enough, said to represent the ‘bad qualities’ of humans. By serving chicken, we take the time to acknowledge our mistakes and be better from it.
  • Anchovies represent sea/water animals. Deliciously stir-fried with peanuts, spices, and chili, anchovies are known to swim in groups in the ocean. They represent togetherness in society, much like how tumpeng encourages us to come together and celebrate.
  • Tempeh, tofu, bean sprouts and more represent the ‘plant kingdom.’ Almost every Indonesian meal has some form of vegetable in it, cooked in a variety of ways. In tumpeng, vegetables such as tempeh and bean sprouts offer the idea of self-growth; an opportunity to reflect and be at peace with ourselves.

Thus, when all these dishes come together, they don’t just create a vibrant display of a meal, they represent our culture. All these side dishes represent a different kind of being in our ecosystem, the same can be said about society—we all come from different backgrounds, but we coexist all together. And that’s actually what our national motto in Indonesia is: Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (“unity in diversity”). The same can be said of any society.

How tumpeng helped me connect with my culture

As an Indonesian-American who spent most of her childhood in Jakarta and then moved on to live in the States, there are times where I feel like I’m losing my Indonesian identity. My mom would tease me and my sister often, saying that we’re “too American,” that we’re losing our fluency in Bahasa Indonesia, that we would prefer to drink coffee instead of jamu, and that we’ve grown from eating meals with rice to meals with bread.

I may have adjusted to life in the U.S., and I do at times feel as if I don’t relate to the person I was when I lived in Indonesia. But I've grown. And much like how tumpeng represents a form of self-growth, I understand that as I grow older, I may not feel like I relate to the average Indonesian—but that doesn’t mean my love for my culture and heritage stopped. Serving Indonesian food, tumpeng most especially, is always the highlight of special occasions and milestones.

It didn’t matter if it was a birthday, graduation, Indonesia’s independence day, or just a festive evening when my family was hosting guests for dinner: Having that golden cone-shaped rice sit neatly on our dining table as we gathered around with loved ones from a variety of backgrounds and cultures made us realize that this is what we enjoy most in life. We celebrate who we were then and who we are now with the people we love, because much like the anchovies that are always served close together and much like the bean sprouts that never cease to grow, we too learn to love our culture no matter where we are. And that is how the symbolic meaning behind this traditional Javanese dish helped me be in tune with the Indonesian side of myself.

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