When one thinks of a typical birthday or wedding, one usually thinks of a beautifully decorated cake. After all, in many countries that's the most common way to celebrate a special occasion. But not in Indonesia. In this Southeast Asian nation, rice takes the cake.
"We didn't have cakes in the past so for special occasions like weddings and birthdays we made yellow cone rice," explains Mrs Nilam Larasati Sukanto, known as Laras to friends and family, wife of the Indonesian ambassador to Oman.
Yellow cone rice, or Nasi Tumpeng, as it's called in Indonesian, is an elaborate cone of bright yellow rice surrounded by an assortment of savoury dishes and decorated with beautifully cut vegetables, banana leaves, beans and other edibles. The towering cone of rice represents the mountains of Indonesia.
For Laras, one of the joys of making yellow cone rice is that it can be very personalised when it comes to decorating it. Each person making it can be as detailed or simple as they like when it comes to the embellishments, and they can also decide what food to put around the bottom of the rice cone, though there should be a balance of meat, seafood and vegetarian dishes.
Laras' has folded banana leaves around the bottom, and a fence made entirely of green string beans. She uses carrots and cucumbers to make palm trees. Flowers are made from carrots, tiny red chillies, baby corn and bell peppers. The green top of a pineapple is transformed into another plant. Egg crepes, coloured a light green, are shredded and become grass. Okra and cucumbers take their places as other plants.
"It's very important that all the ingredients are fresh. Keep the vegetables in water to keep them blooming," she says as she decorates her rice.
She puts chicken satay, spicy prawns, fried tofu, fish nestled inside yellow pepper and a mix of steamed vegetables around the base of the cone. Depending on how big the cone is and how many people will be served, more dishes can be added, Laras notes. When it comes to Indonesian food, most of it is spicy. Most dishes include three key ingredients: garlic, onions and chillies.
"Mostly Indonesian people like spicy food. And the spicy is really, really spicy," Laras says.
For fish and seafood, Laras makes sure the dishes aren't overcooked. She also likes adding extra lime leaf to them. "Extra is better and I prefer to chop it to release the flavour," she explains.
Though Indonesians generally love intense spices, Laras sometimes adapts her recipes to accommodate other tastes. She uses red bell peppers to reduce the heat in her red chilli sauce.
Finally, the dishes are settled around the base of the cone and the tower of rice is covered with vegetable flowers and trees. After all the effort put in to making the yellow cone rice look like a masterpiece, it seems a shame to destroy it and eat it. But Laras says this is part of the fun, like blowing out the candles on a cake.
"When you cut the mountain, everything falls. It's really exciting!" she explains.
Not only is the yellow cone rice fun, but it's also delicious, and a neat way to highlight Indonesian cuisine, something Laras is passionate about. She also wants to preserve the art of making yellow cone rice, a skill she worries the younger generations of Indonesians are losing.
"Maybe the younger generation thinks it's too old fashioned. Now many people get cakes instead. I will tell my daughters that even if they don't like it, they should learn to make it," she says.
Laras, who has travelled extensively with her husband and lived in several countries including Cambodia, the USA, and Saudi Arabia, also feels it's her responsibility to introduce her homeland to Omanis, including its cuisine.
"As a diplomatic wife, I want to showcase Indonesian culture. Maybe some Omanis know about Indonesia, but I want to promote it with the food. Food goes to the heart," she says.
3 cups or (700ml) jasmine rice
5 cm fresh turmeric, peeled and scraped (or you can use turmeric powder as a substitute)
2 cups (475ml) of thick coconut milk
2 cups (475 ml) water
2 kaffir lime leaves
1 lemongrass, bruised or 2 tablespoons (30 ml) powdered lemon grass
1 teaspoon (5ml) salt
1. Wash and drain the rice.
2. Put the fresh turmeric in a blender with 1/4 cup water and process until fine. Strain through a sieve, pushing to extract all the juice. Measure 2 tablespoons and discard the rest. If fresh turmeric is not available, mix 2 teaspoons turmeric powder with 2 tablespoons of water.
3. Put rice, turmeric-water and all other ingredients in a heavy saucepan. Cover and bring to the boil over moderate heat. Stir, lower heat to the minimum and cook until the rice is done OR If you have a rice cooker, put rice, turmeric water and all other ingredients in a rice cooker. Cover and let it cook. Stir a bit while cooking, then cover and continue cooking. The rice should take about 20 minutes.
Some of the dishes used to accompany the rice include: fried chicken, steamed fish, urap vegetables, empal gepuk (sweet and spicy fried beef), abon sapi (beef floss), fried tofu, semur (beef stew in sweet soy sauce), teri kacang (anchovy with peanuts), fried prawn, telur pindang (boiled marble egg), shredded omelette, tempe orek (sweet and dry fried tempeh), perkedel kentang (mashed potato fritters), perkedel jagung (corn fritters), sambal goreng ati (liver in chilli sauce).
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