Ketupat: Carrying Culture and Values in a Rice Cake
Every year on Eid, Indonesians joyfully celebrate by preparing and savoring a traditional dish called ketupat. This festive occasion is often accompanied by playful remarks like "avoid wearing white-colored cloth; it'll stain!" or playful banter about the abundance of santan (coconut milk). Ketupat itself is arguably the most iconic of all dishes served on Eid, consisting of steamed white rice cake delicately nestled inside intricately woven coconut leaves, forming a distinctive diamond shape. It is customary to enjoy Ketupat alongside an array of delightful side dishes and accompaniments, including opor (coconut milk chicken stew), sambal goreng kentang (spicy fried potatoes), satay, and rendang, which collectively contribute to the celebratory Eid menu.
The tradition of making and eating ketupat originated from the reverence for Dewi Sri, the goddess associated with agriculture, fertility, and prosperity. In ancient agricultural societies, Dewi Sri held a significant role as the highest deity, particularly in relation to rice and harvest. Over time, this tradition has evolved. Nowadays, Dewi Sri is no longer worshiped as a deity, but the act of making and eating ketupat still represents gratitude towards God. This tradition remains present in many traditional ceremonies across Indonesia. Ketupat is a symbol of expressing gratitude to the giver of life and is always included in these ceremonies. Today, many people continue to honor Dewi Sri, and this cultural heritage is preserved in various Indonesian royal palaces, such as those in Cirebon, Bali, Surakarta, and Yogyakarta.
According to Dutch historian Hermanus Johannes de Graaf's account in the Malay Annual Book, the origin of ketupat can be traced back to the reign of the Demak Kingdom, the first Islamic kingdom in Java. It was during this period that Sunan Kalijaga, an influential Islamic figure, introduced the teachings of Islam using ketupat as a means to bridge cultural practices. Local beliefs at that time involved hanging diamonds on doorsteps for good luck. Sunan Kalijaga ingeniously modified this custom, transforming ketupat into a dish that incorporated Islamic values, thereby breaking away from its supernatural connotations.
In Javanese culture, it is alleged that the dish ketupat holds profound philosophical associations with the concepts of "Ngaku Lepat" and "Laku Papat," adding layers of depth to its significance. According to beliefs passed down through generations, Ngaku Lepat is said to be a custom where a child sits cross-legged (sungkem) on the morning of Shawal to acknowledge and confess their mistakes, whether intentional or unintentional. This alleged Sungkeman tradition is said to highlight the importance of honoring parents, practicing modesty, and seeking forgiveness and sincerity, particularly from one's own parents. In a broader sense, it is believed that the community practices ngaku lepat during the Shawwal month by visiting one another and reinforcing these values. Similarly, the concept of Laku Papat, or the four actions during Eid in Javanese society—Lebaran, Luberan, Leburan, and Laburan—is said to encompass acts such as forgiveness, starting anew, and more, as claimed by local customs.
According to the alleged symbolism attributed to ketupat, the woven diamond patterns are believed to symbolize the interconnectedness of the sins individuals have committed throughout their lives, as passed down in oral traditions. This symbolism is said to be reflected in the intricate designs of the coconut leaf-based ketupat packages. It is claimed that when one unwraps the ketupat, the white rice inside is believed to represent the purity of the heart after seeking forgiveness for all past mistakes, as claimed by local beliefs. The alleged physical form of ketupat is said to embody the concept of Kiblat Papat Limo Pancer, where, as per these beliefs, despite having four sides representing the four cardinal directions (east, north, west, and south), it is believed to ultimately converge on a single Qibla or center. Additionally, the alleged significance of the yellow color of ketupat lies in distinguishing Javanese coastal people from the green color associated with the Middle East and the red color associated with East Asia, according to these local claims.
According to alleged interpretations, there is another hidden meaning associated with the use of coconut leaves as packaging for ketupat. It is claimed that the Javanese word for coconut leaves, "janur," is derived from the Arabic term "jaa an al-nur," which is believed to signify the arrival of light. Similarly, the Javanese term "sejatine nur" is said to define "janur" as light. Allegedly, this holds a broader significance, referring to the state of holiness that individuals are believed to attain after experiencing enlightenment during the month of Ramadan. These alleged interpretations suggest a deeper symbolic connection between the choice of coconut leaves for ketupat packaging and the spiritual journey associated with the holy month.
In Indonesia, different cities have their own variations of ketupat dishes. For example, in Jakarta, there is a popular Betawi vegetable ketupat that is often enjoyed for breakfast and considered a special dish for Eid. It consists of steamed vegetables, such as chayote or young papaya, cooked in coconut milk with various spices. The dish is served alongside pieces of ketupat and is enhanced with long beans and dried ebi for added flavor. What makes this ketupat dish unique is the use of peanut sauce as a condiment. Another variation called kupat tahu, originating from West Java, features ketupat pieces served with fried tofu, bean sprouts, and a drizzle of peanut sauce. It is typically accompanied by soy sauce, chili sauce, and crackers to provide a comprehensive flavor profile. Kupat Tahu can be found in various places including Singaparna, Magelang, Solo, and Bandung.
In Tegal, there is a dish called Kupat Glabed, which consists of ketupat served with a thick yellow sauce. The broth resembles yellow opor but with a thicker consistency. Kupat Glabed is accompanied by various satays, such as innards satay or blengong (a type of duck) satay, shredded chicken meat, and yellow noodle cracker crumbs. Ketupat Sayur Padang, also known as tupe padang, is another variation where ketupat is served with jackfruit curry, fern curry, chili sauce, and red crackers. Additional side dishes like rendang, eggs, or balado potatoes can be added to make the meal more complete. This Minang-style dish has distinct flavors characterized by the rich and savory taste of thick coconut milk obtained from the jackfruit curry sauce, along with a spicy kick. These different ketupat dishes showcase the diversity and regional culinary traditions in Indonesia, each offering unique flavors and combinations of ingredients.
Ketupat Sayur or Lontong Sayur from Medan is a unique variation that includes vermicelli in addition to the ketupat or lontong pieces, providing extra carbohydrates. This delightful dish is complemented by the flavors of shrimp, chayote, long beans, and tasty tauco seasoning, resulting in a delicious broth. In South Kalimantan, a popular vegetable ketupat dish called Katupat Kandangan is enjoyed. It features ketupat pieces served with a savory curry sauce and accompanied by fried haruan fish. Alternatively, people may opt for carp, catfish, or other fish varieties according to their preference. The soup broth in this dish often incorporates coconut milk, which carries a symbolic meaning. In Javanese culture, coconut milk, known as "santen," rhymes with "pangapunten," signifying the act of seeking forgiveness for one's mistakes. During Eid celebrations, it is customary to recite a Javanese pantun or poem that reflects the spirit of humility and reconciliation. One such pantun is "Dahar kupat nganggo santen. Menawi lepat, nyuwun pangapunten," which translates to "Eating ketupat with santen, if there's any mistake, please forgive me." This playful poem adds an endearing touch to the festivities, emphasizing the importance of seeking forgiveness and fostering harmonious relationships. Ketupat holds a significant place in Indonesian culture, extending beyond its role in Eid al-Fitr or the Shawwal sunnah fast. It embodies profound Islamic values and has become deeply ingrained in the cultural heritage of people from diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.
In conclusion, ketupat holds a profound cultural and symbolic significance that transcends its role as a delectable dish enjoyed during Eid celebrations. Rooted in the reverence for Dewi Sri, it embodies the act of expressing gratitude towards the divine or the higher power. The meticulously woven diamond-shaped rice cake, wrapped in coconut leaves, symbolizes the interconnectedness of individuals, the quest for forgiveness, and the purification of the heart. This tradition has evolved over time, embracing values of humility, reconciliation, and a deep appreciation for life's blessings. With unique regional variations, ketupat showcases the diverse culinary traditions across Indonesia, while its enduring presence in Indonesian culture unifies people from diverse backgrounds, safeguarding a cultural heritage that fosters harmony and cultivates a sense of gratitude.