In the streets of Central Java, women carefully load their bamboo baskets with bottles of jamu, a homemade elixir. Their hands are stained yellow from the turmeric that they have freshly ground to a pulp that morning with a pestle and mortar, along with other rhizomes, roots, fruits, bark and leaves to add to their tinctures. As the sun starts to rise, the jamu gendong (jamu sellers) make their way along their daily route by foot or by scooter, stopping only to serve one of their botanical infusions to a thirsty customer.
Some carry as many as eight bottles, each containing a bespoke jamu designed to give the customer a boost at any stage of life, from childhood to old age. They take care not to spill a drop as they pour the precious drink into a cup. For in Indonesians’ eyes, the bitter-tasting drink is not solely designed to quench your thirst, but jamu means a “prayer for health” in old Javanese.
Jamu is such an integral part of Indonesian culture that the country has nominated it for the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List. “At its most basic, jamu is a herbal medicine; at its fullest, it is a reflection of how a culture maintains wellbeing over thousands of generations,” said Metta Murdaya, author of Jamu Lifestyle: Indonesian Herbal Wellness Tradition.
The drink has a rich and ancient history, originating during the times of the Mataram Kingdom (8th to 10th Centuries) more than 1,300 years ago. It was first drunk in the royal court, then was introduced to villages by healers. From there, the recipes were passed down by word of mouth through families.
According to anthropologist Patrick Vanhoebrouck, who has lived in Java for more than 20 years, references to the herbal tincture can be found in the bas-reliefs of Borobudur temple in Java. “Archaeological research on 9th-Century temples in Central Java show that jamu and herbal medicinal recipes were already administered to preserve health,” he said. Pestles and mortars, the tools of jamu making, have also been found in archaeological digs and date from the time of the Mataram Kingdom.
While the first recipes were found in records in the royal courts, fourth-generation jamu maker Vanessa Kalani said that jamu could predate them. “I believe that jamu goes back to a time when people lived in nature and took whatever they needed to heal from the forest, whether that was certain leaf or a flower,” she said. “It is an indigenous medicine.” Similarly, Malaysians have ramuan or ramu, a tradition of herbal food, medicine and beauty that incorporates the healing traditions of the indigenous orang asli people.
While kunyit asam (turmeric and tamarind) and beras kencur (rice and aromatic ginger) are two of the most well-known jamus, each Indonesian island has its own version of the drink based on the plants and spices endemic to its landscape. Visitors to Central Java will find sweetened turmeric and tamarind tinctures; the Balinese favour loloh cem-cem, made from hog plum leaves; while in the Moluccan islands it’s kopi rempah, created from coffee and spices such as nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. Each family may also have their own version of the drink, which can be bitter because of the root vegetables within it. A 2012 survey by the Indonesian Ministry of Health recorded a staggering 15,773 different jamu recipes within the archipelago.
Each jamu is believed to have different properties, whether to ease period pain or lower blood pressure. While many ingredients are purported to have their own health benefits – from turmeric to ease digestion or galangal to reduce muscle aches – jamu is seen as more of a preventative measure than a cure and the health-giving drink is viewed holistically, in that it treats body, mind and soul.
“Many Javanese are aware that physical health is believed to be influenced by emotional, mental and metaphysical energy levels of harmonious balance,” Vanhoebrouck said.
When a report was published in 2015 saying that 49.5% of jamu makers were already 60 years old and only one-third of them had apprentices, there were concerns that the tradition might disappear. But a new generation of artisans and entrepreneurs are now embracing the ancient drink and giving it their own twist.
A new generation of entrepreneurs are putting their own twist on jamu, from cocktails to juice bars to desserts (Credit: Potato Head)
Kalani isn’t the only person to tweak jamu for a new audience, as it has also entered the local cocktail scene. At hip Bali beach club Potato Head’s Indonesian restaurant Kaum, head bartender Bina Nuraga gives international guests a taste of Indonesia by blending turmeric jamu with pandan-infused rum. “As the jamu consists of turmeric, ginger and pandan leaf, it adds a spicy touch to the cocktails, as well as a nice earthy note and a bitterness as well,” said Nuraga.