Feeding The Nation

Bubur: Sensational Sweet or Savoury

Light and refreshing as a dessert, yet satisfying and nutritious as a main course, bubur is an amazingly versatile dish with a philosophical backstory.

Words by Vikaria Lestari, Photography by Helen Yuanita

The clock shows quarter to nine in the morning as I hear the familiar ‘ting’ sound from the street in front of my house. A regular hawker is passing by, tapping a spoon on a bowl to attract attention, his food cart fitted with a large aluminium stockpot, ice container and glass jars, selling bubur sumsum. Bubur means ‘porridge’, and sumsum literally means ‘marrow’; the creamy, coconut milk-boiled rice flour is pure white, like marrow.

Bubur sumsum is typically served after a wedding party or traditional ceremony. As it symbolises strength, this is believed to help those who participated in organising the party to regain their energy, as well as being a means of expressing gratitude from the host.

Nowadays, bubur bought on the streets often gets a little twist. Pandanus leaves give bubur sumsum a green hue and vendors serve it with ice cubes. You can also get bubur candil (made from glutinous rice and tapioca flour or sweet potato) and bubur mutiara (sago pearl pudding). “Serving only sumsum is less appealing to the customers,” explained the hawker, when I asked about the two other bubur variants. “As you can see, the green sumsum, the brown candil and the red mutiara, dressed in melted palm sugar and coconut milk sauce, make a feast for the eyes as well as the palate,” he added. The combination also enhances the richness of taste.

As a matter of fact, this kind of bubur combination is actually similar to bubur madura, a speciality of Madura Island, off the northeast coast of Java, missing only bubur ketan hitam (black glutinous rice pudding). However, when you combine bubur sumsum with ice cubes, cuts of steamed plantain, red cocopandan syrup and condensed milk, you get yourself an es pallu butung, a delight of Makassar, South Sulawesi. This simple dessert is quite the favourite on a hot day, and you can either make it yourself at home or buy it from street vendors.

Marvellous Treats with Messages

Indonesians divide bubur into two categories: a sweet porridge eaten as dessert, associated with traditional rituals, and a savoury version eaten as a main course. The sweet taste of bubur candil, also known as kolak biji salak, or jenang grendul in Solo, Central Java, for instance, is a kind of dessert served at family gatherings. The sweet, chewy balls – made from glutinous rice flour and tapioca flour or sweet potato, with melted palm sugar and coconut milk dressing – are symbols of living in harmony, despite the diversity of life.

Bubur ketan hitam, also known as ketan item or bubuh injin in Bali, has a symbolic meaning as well. Just like the sticky, hard-to-part nature of glutinous rice, the dessert is a reminder (perhaps a wish as well) that a good, noteasily broken relationship should be maintained. Glutinous rice is also presented during a traditional Javanese engagement party as a reminder to the future wedded couple to always stick together and not easily be parted, just like ketan!

Bubur ketan item is perfect to enjoy as a sweet treat in the morning, at tea time, or indeed at any time of the day, either with the addition of ice cubes or served warm. It is so ubiquitous that you can easily find it being sold from food carts, tent shops or warungs (small shops). Bubur ketan item is often presented with bubur kacang hijau or bubur kacang ijo (Indonesian mung-bean congee), topped with coconut milk dressing and a slice of white bread. A bowl of bubur ketan item and bubur kacang ijo is more than enough to make a happy stomach. However, bubur kacang ijo is also good to enjoy on its own, warm or cold.

Healthy and Satisfying

While palm sugar and coconut milk are the key ingredients for bubur eaten as a dessert, vegetables, fish or chicken are used for bubur main dishes. Manado, North Sulawesi, offers a variant that is vegan-friendly. Made of rice, pumpkin, sweetcorn kernels, sweet potato or cassava, watercress or spinach and lemon basil, bubur tinutuan, also known as bubur manado (Manadonese porridge), is a tasty,healthy meal, which can be enjoyed with a condiment of sambal roa, a chilli-basedsauce made of roa fish (galafea).

Similar to bubur manado, bubur pedas from Sambas Regency, West Kalimantan, also features lots of vegetables. Found also in Singkawang, Pontianak, and heavily Malay-influenced regions such as Sumatra, the crunchy and watery bubur pedas consists of ground roast rice, watercress, fern, long beans, bean sprouts, sweet potato, lemon basil, daun kesum (Vietnamese mint) and sweetcorn kernels. Fried anchovies and peanuts are added to enhance the taste. Although in Indonesian the word pedas means ‘chilli hot’, bubur pedas is not a burning dish in this instance, pedas refers to the large number of vegetables in the ingredients.

Speaking of vegetables as bubur ingredients, Buleleng Regency, Bali, offers delicious bubur mengguh, which you should not miss when visiting the ‘Island of the Gods’. Bubur mengguh, typically served during traditional and religious ceremonies, consists of coconut milk-boiled rice porridge, spices, shredded chicken, celery and fried peanuts. To serve, bubur mengguh is topped with urap, a green vegetable salad with grated coconut dressing. Healthy and delicious.

Maluku and Papua are also famous for their bubur variant served as a main course. Known as papeda, the bland sago congee is never eaten on its own. It is always presented with a side dish of luscious ikan kuah kuning (yellow-sauce fish). The fish for the dish can be tailored to taste, such as red snapper, pompano, skipjack or mackerel. The soft and sticky papeda will smoothly glide down the throat while the sour and fishy taste of ikan kuah kuning soup lingers on the palate. The hint of sourness is provided by the tropical fruit belimbing wuluh (Averrhoa bilimbi), although some people prefer kaffir lime juice and tamarind.

Whether it’s cooling the throat on a hot day or satisfying a hungry stomach, bubur has a status beyond simple cuisine; it is deeply connected to Indonesian traditions and conveys philosophical values.

In fact, there are many other variants from different provinces in addition to those mentioned here. Solo alone offers at least 17 variants of sweet porridge that can be tasted for free during the city’s Jenang Festival. It’s possible to enjoy bubur at any time of the day, and at any occasion. Let’s savour it!

Vikaria Lestari

Javanese by birth, is a writer and translator whose passions are travelling, food and reading. Her hobby, amongst others, is observing the unique characteristics of different cuisines and places, which she shares later in her writing. Her published works include translated novels written by bestselling American authors, as well as travel and lifestyle articles.