Celebrating with Yellow Rice (Nasi Tumpeng)

A few weeks ago, I was in Seattle to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday.

cutting the tumpeng

That’s my mom and dad. The peak of the nasi tumpeng is sliced off first, in the same tradition as slicing into a birthday cake (Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

My visit wasn’t a surprise–I was there on “business”–but the party was!

Preparing for the party of about 80 guests was quite an orchestration. My mom single-handedly prepared all the food, starting two weeks beforehand, and my sis, Mo, sent out Evites and tasked everyone with setup, decorations and Costco runs for the day.

Everything was meticulously planned. To avoid any suspicion, we had a family dinner on Friday night to celebrate dad’s birthday, and Mo asked dad to come over on Saturday to help her put together her patio table.  I was very concerned that someone was going to give it all away, and ironically, I was the one who almost did! A gentle shoulder squeeze from my mom was all that stood between my big mouth and a ruined surprise.

The Saturday morning of the party dawned bright and sunny (not always a given during Seattle summers). It was a bustle of activity as we set up in the cabana next to the swimming pool in Mo’s condo.  I even managed to get my 7-year-old nephew to help with unmolding and arranging the desserts.

The amazing spread of food comprised: Sate Manis (sweet pork satay), Beef Rendang (curried beef), Ayam Goreng (fried chicken), Tahu-Tempeh (sauteed tofu and tempeh), Sayur Asem (sour vegetable soup), Krupuk (shrimp, fish and tapioca crackers) and seven different types of dessert including Longan/lychee Jelly, Kue Salat (sticky rice topped with coconut custard), and Durian Roll (a roulade filled with durian cream—yum!). And let’s not forget the keg of root beer, my dad’s favorite soda!

However, the highlight of the meal was the Nasi Tumpeng, turmeric-tinged yellow rice piled high into a cone and served with an assortment of dishes.


Shredded egg omelet, cucumbers, sambal teri (anchovies with chilies and peanuts), telor belado (twice cooked egg with sweet chili sambal), tahu-tempeh, are just some of the foods that usually surround the base of nasi tumpeng (Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

Mom went all out with the decorations, fashioning bell peppers, chilies, and onions into flowers, and arranging eggplant, cabbage and lettuce leaves around the gorgeous display.

At around 5 p.m., Mo lured dad down to the pool saying she needed to get dropcloths to protect her carpet.

From inside the cabana, I watched as my dad sauntered closer to the cabana, pausing to peer at the potted plants and flowers surrounding the pool.


Mom leading a surprised dad into the cabana to meet his friends (Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

As he walked through the door, everyone shouted in unison, “Surprise!”  And from the look on his face–eyes wide, eyebrows raised, jaw dropped–he didn’t suspect a thing!

Fragrant Yellow Celebration Rice (Nasi Kuning)


(Photo courtesy of Ricky Raynaldi)

The foundation of nasi tumpeng is, of course, fragrant yellow rice. In Indonesia, this dish is traditionally served to celebrate a special occasion, be it a birthday, a marriage or even success at work. The height of the cone symbolizes the greatness of Allah or God, and the food at the base of the cone symbolizes nature’s abundance. The yellow tinge in the rice symbolizes wealth and high morals. When I was growing up, nasi tumpeng was served alongside roast beef at Christmas dinner, fitting perfectly into our holiday celebrations, a time of thanksgiving and hope for a prosperous New Year. But you can enjoy in place of white rice any time!

Time: 45 minutes plus frying shallots
Makes: 6 to 8 servings as a as part of a multicourse family-style meal

2½ teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm water
1½ cups coconut milk
1 plump stalk lemongrass, bruised and tied into a knot
1 salam leaf
4 kaffir lime leaves, crumpled
2½ cups long-grain rice
2 cups water

1 small red bell pepper, cut into strips
1 small cucumber, peeled and cut into coins
Fried shallots

Dissolve the turmeric and salt in the warm water.

In a large pot, bring the coconut milk, lemongrass, salam leaf, and kaffir lime leaves to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the turmeric water. Tip the rice into the pot and add the water. Bring to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally.

Simmer uncovered until all the liquid has just been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender but not mushy; the rice grains should still be separated. If the rice is still hard, make a well in the center of the pot, add a little water, and cook a few more minutes. Halfway through the estimated cooking time, gently fluff the rice with a fork or chopsticks.

Let the rice cool. Fish out the lemongrass, salam leaf, and lime leaves and discard.

On a large serving platter, mound the rice into the shape of an upturned cone. Garnish with red pepper strips, cucumber slices, and fried shallots.


16 thoughts on “Celebrating with Yellow Rice (Nasi Tumpeng)

  1. Can we eat Nasi Tumpeng in a restaurant? When I was in Batam. They say I need to order in advance and with 6 people in the group.

    zul malaysia

    1. Hi Zul, Making nasi tumpeng is a very time-consuming process so that’s why you have to order it in advance. When my mom had her restaurant, she would only make it for catered events. It’s basically nasi kuning plus different dishes like rendang, ayam goreng, vegetables etc. So you could just order those dishes individually if you’d like a taste. Thanks for dropping by!

    1. Hello, I have a nasi tumpeng recipe in my cookbook but unfortunately not on the blog. I’ll put it on my list and hopefully I’ll post it soon! Cheers,

  2. Wow, what a feast. I am inspired to try this fragrant yellow rice. I simply add turmeric and raisins for my yellow rice which goes well with a nice curry, but this is something else, thank you

  3. Oh, what sweet pictures. And your mom is quite the queen of vegetable garnishes! Did you inherit her artistry? I love how the nasi tumpeng looks like an erupting volcano (or is that just me?).

  4. I am glad that in Indonesia this tradition is still strong…. there are quite a number of “cooking lessons” on how to decorate tumpeng. Hey, perhaps your mom can teach this beautiful art.

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