Indonesia’s traditional remedies have long stayed secret in the vast southern archipelago, but local entrepreneurs are working hard to change that. Jamu, Indonesia’s island remedies are not only increasing in popularity, they’re becoming cool.
She’s old, the wrinkles written into brown furrows over her eyes say as much, but the weight of the bamboo basket she lets down has me second guessing. She glances up after I stop her and asks me what’s wrong. ‘Bum knee,’ I say in my best Indonesian. She takes a quick look and then the magic starts. Out of her basket in a flurry come the various unlabelled bottles, nameless jars, multi-coloured powders and a single glass for me. One drop of this, three of that, a dollop of the rust-coloured powder, some of the chocolate-looking stuff and before I know it, there’s a glass of what looks like mud-water sitting in front of me. She doesn’t hesitate in shuffling the bottles back into the big basket, but as soon as I pick up the glass to take a swig, she’s all smiles, and now I know why. The taste is bitter — it burns, it stings, it’s overpowering — and I nearly choke on the unexpected power of the stuff until the smoothness of the ginger tea finds its way into my throat. She responds with only a chuckle. The stuff? Jamu, Indonesia’s infallible elixir.
“And while many [jamu] recipes have been created, abandoned, and modified over the years, what remains most important for the modern era is that the tradition has held fast, and still remains a cultural cornerstone of Indonesia’s sweepingly diverse history.”
There is no clear date attached to the origin of jamu, though many speculate that it dates back to the ancient kingdoms of Solo and Yogyakarta in central Java, where the royal Javanese families were said to have consumed these remedies to maintain their health and stamina in a time when medical expertise was seriously lacking. But while jamu’s origins are regal, its development became a mass cultural movement over the centuries. Finding their way out of the keratons (palaces) of central Java over time, and into towns and cities across the archipelago, the recipes for these elixirs have never been codified. Rather, they have been, and continue to be, passed down from generation to generation. And while many recipes have been created, abandoned, and modified over the years, what remains most important for the modern era is that the tradition has held fast, and endures as a cultural cornerstone of Indonesia’s sweepingly diverse history.
Cultivated over the thousands-year-old history of the archipelago, this traditional herbal remedy is made from natural elements such as ginger, tamarind, galangal, and a slew of others. Now taking the form of pills and powders, but most commonly as drinks, these Indonesian concoctions are said to be able to remedy anything from sore joints, to stress, to skin problems to other, more behind-closed-doors ailments. Most prominent in Java, but also laying claim to Bali’s lazy coastlines and shrouded interior, jamu has long remained a staple for Indonesians in its simplest form — concoctions sold from roadside shanties and mbok jamu (traditionally-clad middle-aged to elderly women toting bamboo baskets filled with jamu ingredients). But in the modern era jamu is undergoing a transformation — it’s becoming something cool. And while the Western world has become increasingly infatuated with Eastern remedies such as yoga and acupuncture in recent years, it looks as though this medicinal island cocktail might be next on the list.
A transformation that is being pioneered by local entrepreneurs, the switch from jamu remaining a local village remedy to becoming a urban trend in Indonesia has its roots in Java where kedai jamu (jamu cafes) like Paviliun 28 and Suwe Ora Jamu in Jakarta, are bringing together traditional forms of jamu with newer creations to entice a familiar, but hesitant crowd. “Many people are afraid of drinking traditional jamu pahit (bitter jamu),” says Jonathan Lesmana, Managing Director of Suwe Ora Jamu, “but we think we have a new way of spreading the jamu love.” The way? Creating colourful mocktail jamu creations that bring together fresh fruits, vegetables, and an array of tropical flavours with the other more traditional components of jamu such as ginger, tamarind and galangal. The result? “People love it. They are coming in after work and staying until midnight. We’ve also noticed that as people get more comfortable with these modern takes, they become more open to trying the older style of jamu that you would usually find in the villages.” And this is a trend that is not only benefitting these local jamu outfits, but — because of the number of benefits that are associated with any number of these different concoctions — the people themselves.
“…in the modern era jamu is undergoing a transformation—it’s becoming something cool.”
And as jamu grows locally, the folks hard at work in Indonesia think it’s only a matter of time before it’s poised to take on the international market in the same way that it’s doing in the archipelago. Both Suwe Ora Jamu and Paviliun 28 plan to open outlets in Bali in the near future, where they say the international audience is already showing interest. “We’ve been there for two years now at the Jazz by the Sea event in Bali, and the international community is always very interested. They said they’d love to see it available in Bali, so we took that feedback, and now we’ll be open and serving by the end of the year.” Another benefit in jamu’s quest for global relevance is the governmental support it has received. The president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, has been known to not only publicly support jamu, but can also be seen sipping a glass of central Java’s finest from time to time, and the health ministry of Indonesia is currently in the midst of publishing scientific studies that support jamu’s long list of health benefits. With this kind of support at both entrepreneurial and governmental levels, it’s hard to see this new movement fizzling out anytime soon.
So whether you’re finding your Indonesian cure from the mbok jamu who navigates her way through the lazy laneways of Bali, or at the hip new kedai jamu that are popping up with more regularity around Indonesia’s chaotic capital of Jakarta, just remember, a glass of jamu everyday keeps the doctor away.
(Featured image: Dried ginger, tumeric, curcuma zanthorrhiza (temulawak). Many roots and herbs are dried before they are processed into fine powders that are then mixed with hot water to make traditional jamu drinks.)
HOMADE JAMU RECIPE – cough remedy
For those interested in giving a jamu a go at home, try this local remedy for cough. Just remember though, it’s going to be strong!
Ingredients: turmeric root (two centimetres long, finely grated), natural honey (1-2 tablespoons full, or to your taste) and juice of half a lemon or a full lime.
- finely grate turmeric and boil in half a cup of water
- strain grated turmeric pieces from the mix or you may leave them if you prefer stronger turmeric juice – while more bitter, this mix will carry more potency
- mix turmeric juice with honey and lemon/lime juice
- drink two tablespoons full, at least three times daily, until cough subsides; best to have it in the morning and before going to bed
- this homemade jamu mixture can be consumed warm or at room temperature; store in refrigerator in a closed jar for a maximum of two weeks