“Tradition” is a word you hear a lot when you live in Indonesia. Traditional dances, traditional clothing and traditional ceremonies etc are all important in everyday life. Even the most modern of young people will take part in traditional ceremonies marking special occasions without thinking twice, especially those connected with family and work.
In Java, (Indonesia’s largest and most populous island), Madura (an island off the northeast coast of Java) and in Sunda (an area in the west of Java) and many other parts of Indonesia, a very traditional ceremony called a selamatan takes place before every special occasion, whether it be for family, such as a wedding or a birth, or for the blessing of a new office or any other special occasion. The ceremony is a kind of thanksgiving, but it is also a sign of the unity of the people taking part. People also believe that by taking part they receive the protection and blessing of God. Selamat in Javanese means “safe from harm” and literally the ceremony seeks God’s protection of the individual, the family or the organisation concerned.
At every selamatan a dish called nasi tumpeng is served, and as you would expect, every part of the dish has special and deeply traditional meaning.
The tall rice cone at the centre of the dish, usually made of yellow rice, represents the mountains and volcanoes of Indonesia, but originally Mount Mahameru as the home of the hyang, the spirit of Indonesian ancestors, and the hindu Gods. Some say the cone is also a phallic representation of the male anatomy signifying fertility. The yellow colour of the rice signifies wealth and virtue. The dish has now been fully absorbed into Indonesia’s modern Muslim culture and the overall theme is one of gratitude towards God.
The Seven Side Dishes
Surrounding the rice cone there are always seven side dishes. In the Javanese language “seven” is pitu, and this has been associated to pitulungan or pertolongan which mean “help” in modern Indonesian. Therefore, the seven dishes represent the helping hands of God.
This is one of the most important elements of the nasi tumpeng. The chicken should be male and cooked in coconut milk and yellow spices, a dish called ayam bekakak. The rooster represents male arrogance, pride, infidelity and the neglect of family. Eating the rooster is believed to rid men of these negative qualities.
Fried with nuts, spices and chillies, the anchovies are a delicious accompaniment to the nasi tumpeng. Because they live together in large schools, they represent social and family harmony.
Boiled eggs symbolise the need for planning and order in life, just as cooking the perfect boiled egg requires proper planning and execution. Since eggs are always similar in size and shape, they also underline the fact that we are all essentially born the same and it is only our actions and devotion to God that can distinguish us.
All of the vegetables and spices served with the nasi tumpeng also have special meaning and significance. Mixed with water to form a dish known as urap, beansprouts, long beans, water spinach, spinach, shallots, chilis, breadnuts, spices and grated coconut are all included for specific reasons:
- Beansprouts represent the need for constant growth.
- Long beans represent planning and vision.
- Water spinach is translated into Indonesian as kangkung, which is similar to the Javanese word jinangkung which means “to protect”.
- Spinach translates into Indonesian as bayam, which is similar to the Javanese word ayem which means “peaceful”.
- Shallots represent wise judgement.
- Red chilli, placed on top of the rice cone, represents fire, and the light and warmth it provides, things human beings cannot live without.
- Breadnuts are called kluwih in Indonesian, which is similar to the word linuwih in Javanese, which means “having advantage over others”.
- Grated coconut and spices are known as urap in Indonesian, similar to the word urip in Javanese, which relates to a prosperous life.
If you are fortunate enough to be invited to a selamatan you will now know the significance of each and every element of the dish. At the beginning of the proceedings, the senior person present will be invited to break the rice cone before everyone else is served – and in certain circumstances, this might be you!
Remember to be respectful and polite to everyone, especially to those older than you. Never use your left hand for anything, especially eating or offering something to, or touching, another person. Don’t stand with your hands on your hips or use any other stance that can be mistaken for arrogance, and never show the soles of your feet when you sit. Even after you have been served food or drink, wait to be invited twice before eating or drinking, and never empty your glass – it suggests you want some more.
Observe these simple rules and you experience Indonesia at its very best!