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 Bali 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.
Jony Yuwono, owner of Acaraki, a jamu cafe in Jakarta, saw how popular coffee bars were becoming in the capital and was inspired to revive another bitter drink. He is now serving the 8th-Century tincture in barista-style surrounds. Jakarta's Gen Z can be found ordering kunyit asam alongside golden lattes from the acaraki (the name for an herbal mixologist during the Majapahit empire). But rather than use a pestle and mortar like the jamu gendong, the acakari prepares each drink to order with the help of an electric coffee grinder, French press or V60 coffee dripper.
Yuwono believes that the drink still has value today. "People may say jamu is old or bitter, but it's our job to repackage it. Bubble tea is essentially tea, which is thousands of years old," he said.
According to Yuwono, who was part of the research team for the Unesco nomination, the acaraki would meditate, fast and pray frequently in order to gather the positive energy required for healing. And while Novi Dewi, founder of Suwe Ora Jamu, has put a modern spin on her sofa-filled jamu cafe in Jakarta, she hasn't forgotten the roots of the drink. "My grandmother always told me that if I wanted to help her make jamu, I had to be focused. She said the intention has to be right," said Dewi.
The positive intentions are as important as the ingredients, agrees Murdaya. "Positive intentions are integral to jamu as recipes have been handed down from healers to communities and parents to children. It's the same as when you say it's mom's chicken noodle soup: why is that any better than getting a takeaway? It's the person that made it for you," she said.
Kalani's first memory of jamu was visiting her great-grandmother's factory, Nyonya Meneer, which was founded in 1919. "The first thing I remember was the aroma – it activated all my senses, from one room where women would be cutting eucalyptus on the floor to another room where they would be sorting herbs and spices," she said.
When the factory that sold jamu powder closed five years ago, Kalani decided to follow in her great-grandmother's footsteps by launching the Jamu Bar brand online. Some of her great-grandmother's former employees, who are now octogenarians, have joined her as consultants. "I felt compelled to continue what she started," said Kalani. "I still have her journal and recipes. It's a beautiful legacy that she left us – her knowledge, her love for herbs and her passion to help people get better."
Kalani admits that she has only taken inspiration from her great-grandmother's recipes, altering them for today's tastes by making them sweeter. "At that time, jamu was extremely bitter, so I've made them to suit more of a modern palate," she said.
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.
Meanwhile, American chef Will Goldfarb of Netflix's Chef's Table fame is showing at his Ubud restaurant Room4Dessert how jamu can also be a dessert. Describing the elixir as "timeless", the chef, who drinks jamu each morning, immediately knew which ingredient to add to his "Incidente Stradale", a spin on a traditional tiramisu. "The plate is brushed with just a little bit of jamu concentrate, which keeps it from being too boring," said Goldfarb. "We also recently utilised jamu for our botanical bomboloni [Italian doughnuts] line. It's passionfruit with a crispy crust of jamu."
But young entrepreneurs are determined to take jamu further afield. A third-generation Moluccan recently launched Good Jamu in the Netherlands. Anna Uspessij, who spent seven years in Indonesia learning about her heritage, returned home to the Netherlands during the pandemic. After making jamu in Bali, she wanted to keep it as part of her daily ritual. When Uspessij could only find jamu powder for sale in the Netherlands, she started making fresh turmeric and ginger jamu for family and friends. Word spread and she now sells her Good Jamu brand online and in organic grocery stores across the country. The tropical, orange-coloured juice can confuse Dutch buyers, she said: "They say, 'I thought it would be sweet', but they still think it tastes really good."
The entrepreneur, who now plans to take the brand to Germany, said she hasn't tweaked the ingredients for Western tastes: "It's cultural heritage and I don't want to dilute it."
BDST: 1637 HRS, FEB 22, 2023