For non-Filipinos, and for Filipinos who left to settle elsewhere in the world before Java rice became the better half of all things grilled, Java rice is a yellow fried rice. As to why it is yellow, the most reasonable guess would be turmeric. More than six years after I first posted a recipe for Java rice (I’ve retired that recipe), I now have an answer as to why it is called Java rice.
What we know as Java rice is rooted in tumpeng — rice shaped like a cone, positioned at the center of a banana leaf covered tampah (what we Filipinos call bilao) and served surrounded by traditional Indonesian dishes and condiments. The tumpeng is a special occasion dish associated with celebrations after a bountiful harvest. If you’re familiar with Indonesian geography, among Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands, Java is the third largest. The tumpeng is significantly connected with the Javanese and the Balinese.
The tumpeng, however, is not always yellow. It may be plain steamed rice. The yellow rice is actually nasi uduk (rice cooked in coconut milk with herbs and spices) to which turmeric has been added. In short, the fried yellow rice that we call Java rice is really more Filipino than Javanese or Indonesian. The Malaysian glutinous rice with turmeric and coconut milk that I wrote about three years ago is closer to the tumpeng which is a true Javanese rice dish.
But since I am a Filipino raised with Filipino “Java” rice, I cook it as a fried rice dish.
I still cook my Java rice in pretty much the same way I did six years ago (the old recipe has been retired). No serious changes except that I increased the spice to rice ratio. I also ditched the ghee for palm oil and I dispensed with the bell pepper altogether. And, instead of sambal oelek from a jar, I used fresh bird’s eye chili.
It starts by sauteing the spices to bring out their flavors. The caramelization that occurs during this stage also gives the Java rice a richer color.
Once the spices have been sufficiently cooked, the rice is added.
The rice is stir fried with the spices until heated through and evenly colored.
- 4 tablespoons coconut oil or other palm oil
- 2 tablespoons finely minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons finely minced ginger
- 2 shallots finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons lemongrass
- 1 bird’s eye chili finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 6 cups cold cooked rice
- salt to taste
- fried shallots to garnish
- sliced scallions to garnish
Heat the palm oil in a wok or frying pan.
Add the garlic, ginger, shallots, lemongrass, chili and turmeric. Cook over medium heat until the mixture starts to look pasty (the oil will be absorbed by the other ingredients).
Add the rice to the pan.
Stir and toss until the rice is heated through and every grain is coated with the spicy yellow paste. Season with salt. Stir to blend.
Ladle the Java rice into bowls or plates and sprinkle with crisp fried shallots and scallions.