Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Nasi Tumpang, a Unique Malaysian Dish

Nasi Tumpang, a Unique Malaysian Dish

What is Nasi Tumpang? This popular dish in Kelantan is probably one of the best looking rice dishes found in Malaysia. For any serious foodie traveler out there who wants to explore the Malaysian Food Scene, this is something to try. The word Tumpang translates as hitching a ride, or overlapping and from the style and shape of the rice, you can see multiple layers of dishes compacted with rice and wrapped in a cone shape with banana leaf. This is not your ordinary rice dish as you can find it only in selected coffee shops for breakfast or tea around Kota Bharu.

In Kelantan, the locals call this dish in their local dialect which is Nasi Tupe. The origins of this dish goes back to the days where fishermen or farmers wife's would pack the Nasi Tumpang for their husbands to bring it along for their work. The main layered dishes are packed from leftovers of the previous day dinner. During rest time or long working hours, they would open up the cone shaped banana leaf rice and eat as a meal. It is very practical and cutlery is not required, making the Nasi Tumpang easy to consume. 

I fist encountered eating Nasi Tumpang back in the early 90's when I traveled to Kelantan and some locals introduced this strange cone dish to me. It was also at The White House in Kota Bharu where I was fascinated by the taste and quirkiness of this dish. The locals said that this was a popular breakfast or tea dish and would sellout really fast. Over the years, whenever I visited Kelantan, I would make it a point to explore other places selling Nasi Tumpang. 
A city style Nasi Tumpang. Photo by Hizwan Hamid c/o
Origins of Nasi Tumpang

The main word Tumpang actually comes from the Malay word 'Menumpang' which mean occupying the space together with rice. If you dig deeper into the origins of of this unique and strange dish, it is also shared with Indonesia as they too have a similar dish called Nasi Tumpeng. Just a difference in spelling, but the Indonesia one looks very intriguing as the way it is prepared and served. In Malaysia, the state of Kelantan is home to Nasi Tumpang where recipes have been handed down from generation to generation.

In the olden days, Nasi Tumpang was sold in markets and nowadays, it is not easy to find as the process of making it is time consuming and tiresome. How far back this dish goes, no one knows for sure. But it is said that this dish is over a century old. I recently read a thesis paper on this, it was said that due to the painstaking effort to produce Nasi Tumpang, many have left this trade to pursue other easier foods. This is now becoming a loss to the Kelantanese people as it is claimed to be one of the original Kelantanese dishes. 

In terms of cultures, Nasi Tumpang in Kelantan is served mainly for breakfast and Nasi Tumpeng in Indonesia is served only during important events like wedding anniversary or other important events due to the grandeur of the accompanying dishes. Kelantanese Nasi Tumpang is made from plain white rice while Indonesian Nasi Tumpeng is made from rice with turmeric, which gives it a yellow color.  
Indonesian Nasu Tumpeng or Nasi Tompang. Notice the style and color of the rice. (Photo: Unknown Source)
Indonesian Nasi Tumpeng or Nasi Tompang

The Indonesian Nasi Tumpeng has an interesting history that dates back to ancient traditions of revered mountains as the abode of ancestors and gods. The dish is also served as a form of thanksgiving for the abundance of harvest. During this ceremony, the top portion of the Nasi Tumpeng is cut and given to the most important person. at the ceremony. The word 'Tompang' also translates as making a fist and punching the ingredients into the banana leaf cone. 
Malaysian Nasi Tumpang preparation method. Image from
What is Inside Nasi Tumpang

Most would be curious to know, buy rice would be the main dish complimented with a variety of chicken or meat dishes. It also depends on the cook what he or she wants to include inside. Most common Nasi Tumpang in Kelantan would be simple rice, serunding (shredded beef, chicken or fish floss), chicken curry, eggs, cucumbers and the unique Gulai Ikan or Fish Curry. ( However, in today's lifestyle world, many restaurants and cafes have come up with their own versions of Nasi Tumpang with prawns, eggs, beef, squid and so on. But at the end of the day, each Nasi Tumpang is unique to the maker as he or she will have their own favourite ingredients in the cone packet rice. 

How to Eat Nasi Tumpang?

While you will be fascinated with the overall look and feel, the big question is how do you eat this? Well, there are two main ways to do this, one where you open up the banana leaf and sample the different layers, accompanied with rice on each layer to fully sample the unique taste. The other is where you open it all up and give it a good old mix up. 

Where to Find Nasi Tumpang in Kelantan

A number of places around Kelantan sells Nasi Tumpang, and one of the famous restaurants in Kota Bharu is the White House Cafe, located in town center. Ask any Kelantanese and they would know of this popular breakfast, lunch and tea cafe. 

Where to Find Nasi Tumpang in Kuala Lumpur

While it is not easy to find Nasi Tumpang around Malaysia, there are some cafes or restaurants that actually make this dish, mostly if they are of Kelantanese origins. One cafe in Kuala Lumpur called 'Nasi Kukus Sentral' at Plaza Sentral in KL, makes this dish. So if you are in Kuala Lumpur and want to try this, head on over there. Each cone is priced around RM7.00 to RM10.00 due to the multiple choices of fillings stuffed inside. 

Another place to find Nasi Tumpang in KL is at 'The Warung' in Mid Valley Megamall. Here, they have created a masterpiece by making the Nasi Tumpang with 11 layers. Being in a shopping mall and in a proper restaurant, you can taste or experience what eating Nasi Tumpang is like. The Warung is also located on the 1st floor of Mid Valley Megamall and open daily from 8.00 AM to 10.00 PM. We recommend going before lunch to try this. If you know of other recommended places that sell Nasi Tumpang in the Klang Valley, do let me know. 

If you are planning on visiting Kota Bharu in Kelantan, north east of Malaysia, make sure you ask the locals about Nasi Tumpang and where you can find it in Kota Bharu. This will most definitely be something out of this world and will be a great conversation piece and even a great social media photo. Overall, this is undoubtedly a true Malaysian food dish to try.  

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