FOOD EXPEDITIONS: Tumpeng – The Indonesian rice dish make specially for celebrations.

When most kids across the world celebrate birthdays by blowing candles on cakes, Indonesian people, especially the Javanese ethnic, blow candles on tumpeng. This special dish is made of nasi kuning (turmeric rice) served with at least 4 side dishes. Can you imagine all the hard work that was made to make this dish? 

Tumpeng is not only for birthdays, though. The dish is basically to celebrate something, such as: the start of a business, anniversaries, moving into a new house, etc. What’s interesting is that tumpeng has a story and each of the side dishes has its own philosophies. 

The story of tumpeng began a long time ago, during the Majapahit Empire which existed between 13th and 16th centuries. At that time, people believed that the Semeru Mountain (located in East Java) is a protector of Java Island and that the Gods are living at the top of it (Mahameru). They created tumpeng in order to represent the mountain and that’s why it’s shaped into a cone. Tumpeng also represents a wish for people to be healthier and richer. 

Tumpeng can consist of as many as side dishes you want to be, but there are 5 dishes that have philosophies. The first dish is turmeric rice which wishes for a better life. The second dish, boiled egg, means every action a person does in life should have a plan. The third dish, Indonesian fried chicken, is a protector from bad traits. The fourth dish, anchovies, means teamwork. The last one, urap (Indonesian salad), wishes for a peaceful and creative life. In addition, urap’s dressing which is peanut sauce means that every family head should feed their families. 

DID YOU KNOW? Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has been used in India and other parts of Asia for thousands of years as both a spice and medicinal herb. 

The active chemical in the spice is called curcumin which is a bright yellow chemical produced by plants of the Curcuma longa species.
 Chemically, curcumin is a diarylheptanoid, belonging to the group of curcuminoids, which are phenolic pigments responsible for the yellow color of turmeric.

Laboratory and clinical research have not confirmed any medical use for curcumin. It is difficult to study because it is both unstable and poorly bioavailable. It is unlikely to produce useful leads for drug development

As tumpeng holds important symbolism, it’s no wonder that this particular dish has become a choice for events, passed down from one generation to the next.

For myself, tumpeng reminds me of birthdays. My paternal grandmother used to cook tumpeng whenever her grandchild was having a birthday.  As I grew up, it became a tradition that I look forward to every year — along with the presents of course. The taste of tumpeng holds a strong place in my deepest memories. How did this happen?

According to John S. Allen (an anthropologist and author), the hippocampus is the part of the brain that is responsible for learning and memory. It also has strong connections with parts of the brain responsible for emotion and for smell. This explains why the taste of food can take you back to one particular scene that is stored in the hippocampus. 

In my mind, the image of me cutting the top of tumpeng on my birthdays is stored in my hippocampus. That’s why it reminds me of my childhood. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away last year, so there’s no more tumpeng on my birthdays. 

But now that I have a family of my own, I decided to continue the legacy. I cook mini-tumpeng on my husband’s birthdays and, of course, I plan to cook one for my daughter’s birthdays soon. I want to create a fond memory for her, just like my grandmother did. 

WORDS: Toska Dhia Andana


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