We were at Nona Bali, Penang’s premier Balinese dining spot, for lunch today. We pre-ordered the Nasi Tumpeng, a celebratory rice dish which the Javanese and Balinese normally serve during happy, auspicious occasions, e.g. birthdays, engagements/weddings, etc.
Nasi Tumpeng is a spectacular dish - it’s meant to be “big”, as any centerpiece for a meal should be. Served on a large communal platter (known in Java as a “tampah”), the Nasi Tumpeng consists of a huge conical-shaped mound of turmeric-tinted rice, gently-spiced with aromatics like cinnamon, cloves and pandan leaves, and enriched with coconut milk.
Yellow is an auspicious colour in Hinduism as it symbolizes not just wealth & knowledge, but also purity, peace & happiness. Even as the Javanese nowadays are mostly Muslims, they still observe the use of this traditional colour out of reverence for their heritage. Hence, Nasi Tumpeng will always be yellow-hued.
Arrayed around the rice would be the side-dishes: various curried or spiced meats and vegetables. Eggs are a must, as they symbolize fertility.
Nasi is Javanese for “rice”, whereas Tumpeng is the acronym for “Me𝘁𝘂 Kudu Sing Me𝗺𝗽𝗲𝗻𝗴, Mlebu Kudu Sing Kenceng”, which translates as “if you do go, do it with vigour”. The meaning of that phrase refers to life itself, where one is encouraged to face it with confidence & enthusiasm, from the moment one is born.
The conical shape of Nasi Tumpeng is meant to represent the sacred Mount Semeru, a volcano in East Java which was believed to be the abode of the gods in pre-Islamic Hindu Java.
The 7-alphabet acronym “Tumpeng” is also represented by 7 side-dishes arrayed around the rice cone. The 7 side-dishes in Nasi Tumpeng are also intended to symbolize the seven types of assistance that one can expect to receive from the gods, if one prays for them. The numeral “7” is regarded as auspicious in Javanese culture: as “pitu” (Javanese for “7”) sounds close to “pitulungan” (“help”).
The dishes are also expected to represent the bounties from the land, and the sea.
Nona Bali is co-founded by two very enthusiastic restaurateurs: Penang-born Peter Tait, and 36-year-old Balinese chef, I Made Siduarta (everyone calls him Made, pronounced “Mah-day”).
We also ordered the signature Balinese Sate Lilit - spiced fish-paste moulded around lemongrass stems and grilled. I first had these on my very first trip to Bali back in 1992, when I was a financial accountant with Singapore Airlines, and it was a business trip. I remembered spending 3 weeks in Bali - in office attire on week-days, sitting on my work-desk (SIA’s office there was located in the Bali Beach Hotel on Sanur), facing the golden sandy beaches & azure blue waters. Everyone outside were in beachwear and frolicking in the surf or sunbathing. I was punching numbers on my calculator, helping my Balinese finance colleagues prepare their reports. It was sheer torture.
The sate lilit came with a thick, caramelly soy sauce (“kicap manis”) dip. Give it a quick squeeze of lime - absolutely delicious.
We also ordered the Bebek Ijo - fried duck, smothered with a green chili-based sauce. We weren’t really expecting a lunch-plate serving, or what the Javanese call Nasi Ambeng - it came with steamed white rice, a small fresh salad, and a scattering of prawn crackers.
The duck was first deep-fried, then braised till the meat has that fall-off-the-bone, but still toothsome, texture.
But the piece-de-resistance, of course, has to be the showy Nasi Tumpeng. We absolutely enjoyed digging into the miniature mountain, loaded with goodies on all sides. The 4 of us sat around its perimeter, and started gnawing into it simultaneously from different directions like a quartet of hungry beavers - if all goes to plan, we should meet at the centre of the platter.
Turned out, we couldn’t finish the food, although I thought we did quite well. I also think I’m not going to eat again for the next 48 hours.
Of course, since I have 4 stomachs like a cow, being stuffed with a quarter of a mountain of rice and 7 types of meats & stuff is not going to stop me having my favourite part of any meal - the dessert!
Okay, admittedly, we were all pretty stuffed - so we ordered 3 types of desserts to share between the 4 of us:
Kukus Injin - this was, according to Chef Made, his signature dessert dish - black sticky rice with freshly-grated coconut, coconut milk sauce and palm sugar, garnished with sugar iced-lime peel. It was rich and delish. Absolutely worth the calories.
Biu Gulung - deep-fried spring rolls filled with cinnamon-scented bananas & raisins, drizzled with chocolate sauce and served with ice-cream.
Tapai pulut - fermented glutinous rice topped with fruits. This was my fave dessert - very traditional Indonesian/Malay.
Nona Bali has been operating in Penang for nearly 10 years now, but has only been in this location since August this year. I much prefer this new place - brighter and spiffier.
Co-owners, Made and Peter
Nona Bali Restaurant
23, Lintang Burma, Pulau Tikus, 10350 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +604-228 1630
Opening hours: 11.30am to 9pm daily, except Wednesdays (closed).