Local wisdom behind Tumpeng
as an icon of Indonesian
Ignasius Radix A.P. Jati
Department of Food Technology,
Widya Mandala Surabaya Catholic University, Surabaya, Indonesia
Purpose – The aim of this paper is to explore Tumpeng, a Javanese traditional food that recently
became an Indonesian icon for traditional cuisine with an emphasis on the philosophical meaning and
wisdom behind the food and the tradition.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper describes and explores the history of Tumpeng, explains the
meaning of all aspects of Tumpeng, from the shape, colour and the items available. Tumpeng as the
symbol of relation of mankind with God, society and environment is also analysed along with its
position in the nutrition education progress in Indonesia. Future perspectives of Tumpeng are also
given in the paper.
Findings – Tumpeng is an integral part of traditional ceremony in Java in every stage of human life.
The shape, colour and items themselves are a symbol of the relation to God, prosperity and guidance for
Javanese people in their daily lives. Tumpeng has been used for nutritional educational purposes in
Indonesia due to its popularity. Moreover, the utilisation of Tumpeng has been spread to all over
Indonesia and the popularity is increasing. Nevertheless, the existence is shifting to a merely economic
purpose. The meaning and wisdom behind Tumpeng are slowly being eroded.
Originality/value – This paper gives a description and explanation about a traditional Javanese
food – Tumpeng – regarding the history, meaning and its future perspective.
Keywords Indonesia, Rice, Cuisine, Tumpeng, Traditional, Ceremony
Paper type Literature review
Indonesia is one of the largest archipelago countries in the world. It consists of
approximately 17,000 islands. The length of Indonesia is about 5,000 km, spanning from
Sabang in North Sumatra to Merauke in the Papua province. Because of the wide
geographical area, there are various local people who speak in ⬎300 local languages.
Local cuisines throughout Indonesia are very diverse. They vary greatly among different
regions. The development of the culinary styles in the regions were inuenced by local
culture, religion and trading (Soemardjan, 1985). For example, in Central Java, especially in
Jogjakarta, the foods usually have a sweet taste; gudeg is an example of this. It is a famous
traditional Jogjakarta dish made from young jackfruit. In Central Java, there is a wide
utilization of palm sugar in the food because coconut trees are easily found in almost all areas
of Jogjakarta. Moreover, the sugar is also called gula jawa (Javanese sugar) due to the wide
production and utilization in Javanese cuisine (Knight, 2009).
Religion also plays a role in the culinary style. This is usually reected in restrictions
on consumption of some foods due to the rules of the religion. For example, most
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 30 November 2013
Revised 26 April 2014
Accepted 27 April 2014
Nutrition & Food Science
Vol. 44 No. 4, 2014
© Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Indonesian foods do not contain pork. Moreover, in Kudus district, Central Java, the
people avoid eating beef because of the inuence of Hindu religion (
Groves, 2010), even
though most of the Indonesian population are Muslim.
Historically, the strategic position of Indonesia attracted merchants from India,
Arabia and China, which also inuenced culinary styles. One famous dish made from
beef, called rendan – a caramelized beef curry from Padang, West Sumatra – is
inuenced by the Indian culinary style, using various kinds of spices (
Foods adapted from the Chinese culinary style can be easily found across Indonesia,
such as bakso (meatball), bakmi (fried noodle) and lumpia (spring rolls). Europeans also
inuenced various dishes in Indonesia, for example bestik (beef steak), an acculturation
from The Netherlands – beef steak served with a sweet thick broth, potatoes and green
Because of various culinary types and styles throughout Indonesia, it is difcult to
decide which food can be chosen to represent Indonesia as a whole. Recently, the
Indonesian government, via the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, launched
Tumpeng as an icon of Indonesian traditional food (
Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and
Creative Economy, 2012
). Tumpeng is a cone shaped rice-based food that is commonly
served with side dishes such as vegetables, meat, chicken and eggs in a Javanese
traditional ceremony. Tumpeng is popular throughout Indonesia because Javanese
people live in almost all provinces in Indonesia, and they still observe their traditional
ceremony in their daily lives. Tumpeng has been chosen because it can represent the
Indonesian culture and way of life of people through its ingredients, colour, shape and
serving technique. The purpose of this article is to describe the unique characteristics of
Tumpeng and its philosophical meaning in relation of people to God, society and
This paper provides descriptive information on Tumpeng as a part of Javanese
traditional life. The information from this paper is mainly based on the local literature.
Nevertheless, interviews with the locals were also done to have complete data.
Description of Tumpeng
Tumpeng is mountain-shaped rice dish, which is presented along with side dishes
Figure 1). Tumpeng is served in a wickerwork plate made from bamboo which usually
has a 65-80-cm-sized diameter called tampah. Before putting the Tumpeng on tampah,
the surface of the tampah should be covered by banana leaves to ensure that the dishes
are clean and, moreover, the leaves can be used as an ornament for Tumpeng. In general,
there are two types of Tumpeng: Tumpeng kuning (yellow Tumpeng) and Tumpeng
putih (white Tumpeng), according to the colour of the rice as a main part of Tumpeng.In
yellow Tumpeng, rice is prepared by boiling in water with other ingredients such as
turmeric, coconut milk, lemongrass, bay leaves, lime leaves, cloves, cardamom and
cinnamon. After the water is fully absorbed, the rice is steamed to desired texture. A
similar process, but without turmeric, is used for the white Tumpeng.
Tumpeng is served along with side dishes. The number of side dishes are usually
seven (pitu) from the word pitulungan, which means help. Some literature also
suggests that it is not necessary to be exactly seven, but it should be an odd number
Irmawati, 2013). There is no standard on the kinds of the side dishes that can
accompany Tumpeng. However, it should represent three elements:
(1) animals that live on land, for example, chicken, egg and beef;
(2) animals that live in water, for example, milksh, catsh and anchovies; and
(3) vegetables such as swamp cabbage, carrot, cabbage, string beans and spinach.
For side dishes, chicken, (by convention, a rooster) is usually prepared by cooking with
turmeric and coconut milk, eggs are boiled and served along with the shell, milksh and
catsh are fried, anchovies are mixed with rice our and then fried. Meanwhile, all of the
vegetables are boiled and served by mixing with seasoned and spiced grated coconut.
This special dish is called urap.
According to a manuscript written in 1814 called Serat Centhini (Amangkunegara, 1986),
there are several different kinds of Tumpeng which are common in Javanese traditional
ceremony. For example, Tumpeng kuning (yellow), putih (white), robyong, gundhul, kencana,
ropoh, bango tulak, panggang, dhuplak, kendhit, megono, urubing damar and pangkur. The
list of various kinds of Tumpeng and the explanation is shown in Table I.
History of Tumpeng
There is no clear information regarding the time the Tumpeng tradition began. However, it
is believed that the beginning of the Tumpeng tradition is between the 5th and 15th centuries
due to the fact that, during that time, the Javanese kingdom was inuenced by Hinduism
(Taylor, 2003). Meanwhile, the symbols in Tumpeng such as mountain shaped rice, colours
and ingredients are known to be a reection of the Hindu religion (Singh and Khan, 1999). A
mountain in Hinduism is believed to be a holy, sacred place as a portal between earth and the
mountain-shaped rice dish
presented along with side
heavens. Moreover, a mountain is the symbol of the beginning of life due to the water which
is owing from the mountain to the stream and can full the needs of all living beings. Even
though Hinduism greatly inuenced the Tumpeng tradition, in Javanese ancient religion
kejawen, a mountain is also a sacred place. God is believed to reside at the top of the mountain
and rule the world (Soesilo, 2002). Therefore, the cone shape of Tumpeng means to give God
a high place above all other things.
Tumpeng is an integral part of the Javanese traditional ceremony slametan. Slametan
can be dened as a ritual to ask for safety in all aspects of life from God, and it has been
the main ceremony of the Javanese religion (Newberry, 2007). Among Javanese people,
slametan is the form of relation of one person to the other within the community, the
interaction of a person with the environment and also the external power which
determines the human life (Beatty, 1996). Javanese people believe that their lives have
been set by the external power and their presence in this world is purely to walk through
the path that has already been decided by that external power. Slametan expresses the
notion of thanksgiving, blessing and grace. It is held to celebrate rites of passage and
promote a sense of community. Slametan has been done in all stages of human life
starting even before the birth of a human being. For example, mitoni (seven months) is
a ceremony on the seventh month of pregnancy, the birth, selapanan (35 days after
The list of various kinds
of Tumpeng and the
The colour of the rice is yellow. The side dishes consist of tempeh, tofu, egg
The colour of the rice is white and consists of vegetables. The number of
vegetables should be in odd numbers
Robyong To wish for harmony among the family members. For the ceremony to
celebrate happy occasions such as marriage. The top of the cone consists of
egg, shrimp paste and red chilli
Gundhul Only the cone shape of rice without side dishes. Used to be free from
Kencana Made from glutinous rice with fried egg and urap as side dishes
Ropoh Similar with the white Tumpeng with additional raja and pulut bananas
Bango tulak Used in ceremony to ask for safety and avoid danger. The colour of the
Tumpeng is black and white for the bottom and upper part, respectively
Panggang The side dishes consist of urap and grilled chicken
Dhuplak The top of the cone is in a concave shape to describe the position of the palm
in the prayer
Kendhit The meaning of kendhit is belt. It is symbolize the border between sky and the
mountain. The color is white with black or yellow color in the middle.
Therefore looks like a belt. Used in the ceremony to ask for safety and
guidance to avoid the power of demon
Megono Consists of several kinds of vegetables mixed with grated coconut and salted
dried sh. Used to celebrate birthday in Javanese calendar
Urubing damar Red chilli is placed in the top of the cone as a symbol of light, so the person
will always having a clear path full of light in his life
Oungkur Used in the ceremony if someone that hasn’t been married passes away,
right before the body is brought to the cemetery. The colour of the Tumpeng
birth), birthday, marriage and funeral (Koentjaraningrat, 1984). Moreover, in the daily
lives of Javanese, slametan also plays an important part, such as building a house,
starting of the farming calendar, the harvest period and other occasions. In these
ceremonies, Tumpeng is the main food served, even though the kinds of Tumpeng are
different according to the type of ceremonies.
Tumpeng is originally from Java, therefore, there is no literature reported on the
similarities with other dishes from neighbouring countries with regards to the shape and the
occasion the Tumpeng are served. Nevertheless, the yellow Tumpeng is believed to be
inuenced by Indian tradition, brought by the merchant and the Brahmana who spread
Hinduism in Indonesia (McDaniel, 2010). Indians prepared yellow rice by adding saffron and
used the rice for special ceremonies such as a traditional wedding (Chapman, 2007).
It is well-known that almost all aspects of Javanese daily life are full of signicant
wisdoms inherited from ancient times from parents to their sons – as guidance to walk
the path of life (Bratawijaya, 1997). Tumpeng which are an integrated part in ceremony
held in every cycle of human life also have the hidden meaningful wisdom.
The word Tumpeng
Tumpeng is the abbreviation of tumungkula sing mempeng. Tumungkula is Javanese
word for bowing and mempeng means diligent. Therefore, the meaning of Tumpeng is
a person should diligently pray to God to have a safe life (Mulder, 1985).
Tumpeng should be served in tampah covered by banana leaves. This condition is called
takir, which is an abbreviation from tatag and pikir, meaning that a person should do his
job with condence. The edge of the banana leaves are folded into a triangle shape and
assembled using a stick. The shape of the leaves is the symbol of the sun. There is also
the belief that the arrangement of the rice and side dishes should be done according to
the pattern of the light (Patra, 2009). For example, the rooster is placed on the East side
called purwa, meaning the beginning – symbolizing the sun is rising in the East. It is the
symbol of the start of the day as well as the beginning of human life. The South side (daksina)
contains vegetable salad (urap), and the West side (pasima) contains cooked vegetables, such
as frikadeller and spicy sweet potato sauté. Meanwhile, the animal-based foods are placed in
the North side (utara). Rice, as the main part, is placed in the middle (madya) as a symbol of
the importance of rice in the daily life of the Javanese.
Although there are various kinds of Tumpeng, the main colour of the rice is white and
yellow. According to Hinduism, white is the symbol of Indra, the God of the sun. The sun
is the centre of human life. People’s activities begin when the sun rises and will end when
the sun sets (Cochrane, 1991). The yellow colour represents fortune and prosperity.
Rice. Rice is the most important Javanese crop with a similar importance in other Asian
countries. As a source of energy, Javanese believe that rice sustains their lives by
providing the power for them to work and to do their activities (Hartini et al., 2005). Due
to the importance of rice, before the farming period, there is a special ceremony as an
offer for the Goddess of rice (Dewi Sri) to obtain a successful planting period and good
harvest (Kamsiadi et al., 2013).
Rooster. A whole rooster is cooked with coconut milk and saffron. This food called
ingkung, from the word manengkung, which means praying to God with a devoted heart.
Cooking a rooster can be interpreted as avoiding the bad habit symbolized by the rooster
Egg. An egg is boiled and served with the shell. The egg reects the idea that in the
beginning of life God equally created human beings. Therefore, all human beings are
the same. The difference is only character and behaviour. The shell should be peeled
before consuming the egg; it symbolizes all of the action that a person wants to do need
to be planned carefully, done according to the plan and evaluated to have good result.
Vegetables. Mixed boiled vegetables that are seasoned with grated coconut, called
urap, also have deep philosophical meaning. Urap means a mix; a person should have a
social life and a good relationship with his neighbours. Urap consist of several kinds of
vegetables, such as spinach (bayem); it contains expectation that a person can have a
safe and peaceful life (ayem), avoiding conict as reected from the shape of the spinach
and its fresh green colour. Water spinach (kangkung) can live both in water and in land.
Therefore, a person hopefully can live through every condition he may face in his life.
String beans (kacang panjang) mean that a person can live longer and always have
thorough thinking before doing something. Mungbean sprouts (taoge) imply that
hopefully a person can have a descendant to continue his tribe (Purwadi, 2005).
Catsh. Catsh is a sh that can live in a pond without owing water. It means that
a person should prepare himself for every trouble and hardship that may come in life.
Moreover, it is important to always be a humble person, like a catsh, which lives on the
bottom of the pond.
Milksh. Milksh is known to have a lot of bones. This food is a symbol of the hope
of a person to have plenty of fortune as much as the amount of milksh bones.
Anchovies. Anchovies are small sh in the sea which always live together in a cluster.
The meaning of this food is that a person should have a good relationship with family
and neighbours because as a social creature, humans can’t live alone and always need
help from others.
Tumpeng as a symbol of relations
Tumpeng is the expression of the culture of the Javanese people, which was inherited from
their ancestors and has been conserved until the modern era. Compared to many traditions
in Javanese culture which have already vanished, Tumpeng has been able to survive due to
its form as foods which are eaten together by groups of people. People use this occasion to eat
and also to communicate among themselves. Tumpeng, in its existence, represents the
human relationship to God, to the society and to the environment.
Relation to God
In slametan tradition, Tumpeng is used as an offer to God. By offering a Tumpeng,a
person is well-aware of his position in the universe and that it is nothing compared the
invisible power which rules the earth, water, wind and everything else in the world.
Therefore, in Javanese beliefs, offering a tribute is very important to maintain the
relationship between humans and God. If God is pleased with their offer, then they
believe that God will guard their lives. Moreover, a tribute is also an expression of
gratitude to God for granting good lives to the people (Musa, 2011). Hence, as an offer,
Tumpeng is made aesthetically beautiful and the taste is also delicious.
Relation to society
Before eating, food should be prayed over and then eaten together by the people who
attend the ceremony. Most of the time neighbours come, pray and eat together. However,
in the case of sickness, the food will be delivered to their house. The activity of eating
together can create a social harmony, called rukun. Javanese believe that if the state of
rukun is achieved, there will be a lot of blessings from God in their daily lives. Rukun can
be gained by participating in the ceremony, helping to prepare the dishes, contributing
the food and delivering Tumpeng to neighbours who could not attend the occasion. By
contributing labour or foods, Javanese people believe that a person should do good to
everybody, so that he will also receive good things from others (
In the ceremony, the leader of the community will cut the top of the Tumpeng and give it
to the elders as a symbol of gratitude and honour to the elderly for guiding the life of the
village. This implies that parents and elders are highly respected by Javanese people.
Relation to environment
Javanese people believe that their lives depend on external power which manages the
environment. Every phenomenon in the environment happens for the specic cause
related to their lives, whether it is a good harvest season or disasters such as oods and
volcanic eruptions. Therefore, Javanese are learning various wisdoms from the
occasions that occur in the environment.
There are a lot of mountains in Java and some of them are active volcanoes. Javanese
people live around the mountain where the lands are fertile and the water can be fullled
by the river ow from the top of the mountain. The cone shape of Tumpeng and the style
of the decoration is the symbol of appreciation of the people to the mountain, which gives
them fertile land, fresh air and sufcient amount of water (
Pitana, 2002). All of the items
on side dishes are also an acknowledgement to the environment, from the chicken and
vegetables which live on land to the sh which live in water. The environment provides
for all of the Javanese people’s needs; therefore, they want to give a tribution to the
environment in every ceremony in their lives.
Tumpeng as tool to promote balanced diet
The popularity of Tumpeng among Indonesians was used by the Indonesian Ministry of
Health to promote the guidelines of balanced diet for Indonesia. The awareness of the
importance of good quality and an appropriate quantity of food in the diet was begun in
1955, created by Purwo Soedarmo (
Soekirman, 2011) with a very popular slogan called
“4 sehat 5 sempurna” meaning “Four is healthy and ve is excellent”. The guide had
four different groups (staple foods, vegetables, fruits and meat/sh) illustrated in a large
circle. In the middle of the large circle there is a smaller circle containing milk. If a person
eats foods from all four groups, the diet is considered to be good. Meanwhile, if milk is
also consumed, the diet becomes excellent.
Since the development of nutritional science, this slogan has become inappropriate
and could lead to an unbalanced diet. Moreover, in 1992, the International Conference on
Nutrition, held by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO, 1992), recommended
that to decrease the global burden on nutritional deciency, especially in developing
countries, the basic four guidelines need to be replaced by guidelines of a balanced diet.
However, to substitute such a popular programme has proven to be quite difcult.
Therefore, in 2009, the Indonesian government then chose the shape of Tumpeng as the
main guideline for a balanced diet for Indonesia, called Tumpeng gizi seimbang
(Tumpeng of balance diet) (Soekirman, 2011).
The gure of Tumpeng in a balanced diet is shown in Figure 2. Different from the original
Tumpeng of the ceremony, the place occupied by the side dishes consists of several activities
of people to help achieve a healthy life, such as sports, hand washing and measuring the
weight of the body. The cone shape of Tumpeng is divided to several groups from the bottom
to the top; i.e. the bottom group consists of water, above the water group is the staple foods
group, after that is the vegetables and fruits group, then the protein sources group such as
meat, sh and legumes and the smallest part at the top are sugars, oils and salt.
In the community, along with the gure that is used in nutritional education, the real
Tumpeng is often used to explain the nutritional content of its components due to the
diversity of side dishes. The nutritional content of foods in Tumpeng is presented in
Table II. The nutritional information of Tumpeng is based on the Indonesian Food
Composition Database (2004) by the Ministry of Health, Republic of Indonesia. Basically
rice, vegetables, protein sources and fruits are available in Tumpeng as a part of the
traditional ceremony. Rice is the main energy source for Javanese people. Meanwhile,
the need for protein and also some micronutrients such as iron and zinc can be fullled
Tumpeng as a part of a
by the animal-based side dishes such as chicken, eggs and sh. Various types of
vegetables, e.g. green leafy vegetables (spinach and water spinach), carrots and
mungbean sprouts, are sources of vitamins and minerals. The utilization of the gure
and real Tumpeng can be implemented due to the similar daily dietary pattern of
Indonesians. A report by Jati et al. (2012) explained that the traditional dietary habit of
Indonesians consists of rice, vegetables, legumes, fruits and animal-based foods.
Although various foods are available in the groups of vegetables, legumes, fruits and
animal-based foods, however, the pattern is similar and there is no difference in
nutritional intake as investigated in previous research (Jati, 2013).
By using real food to explain the better quality of a balanced diet, people can easily
imagine the proportion of a balanced diet and they can apply the guidelines in their
households using various foods available. Therefore, Tumpeng can assist to give a
description of a better quality of diet.
Future perspective of Tumpeng
As a tradition containing a deep philosophical meaning that could be used by Javanese
people as a guide in their daily lives, Tumpeng can survive and remain popular in
Indonesia. However, even though Tumpeng is still commonly available in traditional
ceremonies, the existence and functions are shifting to merely providing consumption to
the people who attend the ceremonies without any thought about its meaning and
values. The occasion of eating together and sharing Tumpeng in the same basket among
one another no longer exists and has been replaced by the food box containing similar
items as Tumpeng that are ready to be taken away back home. Usually, Tumpeng is
prayed over and then the food boxes are distributed to the attendees and the ceremony
ends. The value of togetherness in the form of contribution of labour and materials in the
The nutritional content of
foods in Tumpeng
Rice 366 7.6 1 78.9 1 0.63 na
Potatoes 83 2 0.1 19.1 1 0.30 0.18
Milk sh 129 20 4.8 0 2 0.80 30
Anchovies 77 16 1 0 1 1.00 13
Catsh 107 16 3.9 1.5 2 0.70 70
Broiler meat 302 18 25 0 2 2.40 75
Beef 207 19 14 0 3 5.50 35
Liver 136 20 3.2 6 13 3.70 14,000
Broiler egg 162 13 11.5 0.7 3 1.20 140
Spinach 36 3 0.5 6.5 4 0.53 468,88
Swamp cabbage 29 3 0.3 5.4 3 2.47 66.66
String bean 44 3 0.3 7.8 1 0.25 35.00
Tomato 23 1 0.7 2.3 0 na 12.16
Carrot 42 1 0.3 9.3 0 0.24 690.45
Bean sprout 23 3 0.2 4.1 1 0.10 na
Fermented soybean 201 21 8.8 13.5 4 na 0.20
“Raja” banana 120 1.2 0.2 31.8 1 0.20 0.01
Indonesia Food Composition Database (2004); RE: retinol equivalent; na: not applicable
Tumpeng tradition has slowly vanished. Nowadays, Tumpeng can easily be ordered in
restaurants or from caterers. This is the common method chosen due to practical reasons
to decrease the burden in the making of Tumpeng.
The establishment of Tumpeng as an icon of Indonesian cuisine could be one step for
better national and international recognition. However, it should be noted that the
promotion has to take the wisdom behind the Tumpeng tradition into account and not
merely the economical and commercial aspects. The tradition to believe and respect the
nature that provides people with their daily needs should be maintained and the
Indonesian people should protect their heritage and transmit the skill, knowledge and,
moreover, the wisdom of their tradition to future generations.
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About the author
Ignasius Radix A.P. Jati obtained his MSc from Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia, in 2007
through ASEA UNINET scholarship. Recently, he is nishing his doctoral degree at the Institute
of Biological Chemistry and Nutrition, University of Hohenheim, Germany. He works in the
Department Food Technology, Widya Mandala Surabaya Catholic University, Indonesia.
Ignasius Radix A.P. Jati can be contacted at:
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