What is Jamu? A wellness drink and ritual from Indonesia

DTorn apart by a pandemic that has encouraged many to rethink and redefine their health, people around the world are increasingly looking for different ways to improve their well-being. As a result, the field of alternative medicine is booming globally, with the market is expected to grow by 22% per year until 2028. In particular, this reflects the growing interest in age-old medicinal systems from Asia, such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). And now the holistic buzz is setting the stage for another ancient tradition to go global: Indonesian jamu came to reach its own wave of consumers eager to drink in all its benefits.

Best known for the ginger-infused drink of the same name, jamu is a herbal practice that emerged as early as 13th century. Etymologically, researchers trace it back to two old javanese words: Jampiwhich can be interpreted as “herbal healing”, and oesodo, which has been translated simply as “health” – and its use is just as wide. Historically formulated as both a preventative health measure and a treatment for chronic pain and inflammatory conditions, jamu is an empirical tradition, says Metta Murdaya, founder of the jamu-inspired skincare line. Juara and author of the recent Jamu lifestyle: Indonesian tradition of herbal wellness. “It just means it’s been passed down through multiple generations by word of mouth, and it’s not so much based on any particular set of rules or written regimens,” she says.

Now, in the midst of pandemic life, this word-of-mouth process is rapidly spreading beyond Indonesia’s borders, with sales among the best producers of medicinal plants in the country jump and jamu beverage exports increase, too. But for Murdaya, who split her childhood between Jakarta, where she was born, and San Francisco, this trend comes as no surprise. “There is this almost intuitive approach [to health and immunity] when an unknown virus enters the scene,” she says. “It’s this natural desire to strengthen our body so that it’s able to fight whatever might come.

“In Indonesia, it is common to have the idea of ​​feeling good or feeling good like your North Star.” —Metta Murdaya, author of Jamu way of life

But what differentiates jamu from the likes of, say, an immunity supplement is that it stems from the Indonesian view of wellness, which Murdaya describes as a big departure from the American glorification of culture of agitation and the subsequent practice of dealing with damage. “In the United States, for whatever reason, we tend to overlook or ignore the signs that we are out of center or out of balance because of this need to push ourselves. It’s a culture of hard work that revolves around two weeks of vacation,” says Murdaya. “But in Indonesia, it’s common to have the idea of ​​feeling good or feeling good like your North Star.”

That’s why many Indonesians don’t usually wait until they’re sick to have a drink of jamu; rather, they drink it daily, says Murdaya: “The idea is that if something works once to make you feel good, you have good reason to believe it will work again and again. But given the simplicity of this premise, it also follows that the recipe for jamu and how it is eaten can vary widely by person and location.

Across Indonesia and beyond, jamu takes many different forms

Unlike a number of other holistic medicinal systems, jamu (as a herbal practice and drink) does not have a single set of guidelines. “Fluidity is an integral part of the tradition of jamu,” says Murdaya. In general, however, the drink’s most common ingredients include various forms of ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon (all of which have anti-inflammatory properties), as well as potassium-rich coconut water.

Variations of this recipe have emerged over time both due to Indonesia’s spice trade-driven economy – which introduced influences from China, India and Saudi Arabia to jamu – and also the geographical diversity of the country. “Indonesia has around 17,000 islands, so jamu varies depending on the herbs and roots that are indigenous to each,” explains Shanley Ugandaan Indonesian-born New York graphic designer who launched his own jamu line, Djamu, during the pandemic. For example, says Murdaya, “Bali jamu tends to include more leafy and fresh greens, while Javanese jamu has more roots like ginger and galangal, just because of what’s available.” It is the unique healing qualities of the herbs and roots native to each island that make the resulting jamu jamu. In other words? The intention with which it is made and consumed has almost as much to do with something being classified as jamu as the particular ingredients themselves.

The intention with which it is made and consumed has almost as much to do with something being classified as jamu as the particular ingredients themselves.

To create her own recipe – mostly a blend of locally sourced turmeric, ginger and tamarind – Suganda drew inspiration from the experience of drinking jamu from her herbalist mother and adapted a bit to a modern palate. (as many current jamu makers in Indonesia also do). “Originally it wasn’t going to include honey or lemon, but the result was a little medicinal without it, so I added a touch of both to balance the taste,” she says.

This approach resonated so well with fellow Indonesian Ochi Vongerichten that she recently started serving Suganda’s jamu at the New York restaurant she owns with husband Cedric Vongerichten. wayan. « Around the opening [in 2019], I saw turmeric and drinks like kombucha everywhere, which reminded me of how I drank jamu every day as a kid,” says Vongerichten. “So we thought, ‘We should serve jamu, but in a modern way. “”Throughout Indonesia, this same thinking has led to increasingly contemporary and creative versions of jamu, including bottled and flavored jamu and even jamu lattes made with coconut milk. , turmeric and ginger, according to Murdaya.

Even so, the common denominator between these modern depictions of jamu is the same as in the original: a plant-based beverage developed with the aim of promoting holistic health.

Jamu is rooted in community and family care

To fully understand jamu, it helps to imagine how it was originally consumed, not just as a drink, but as part of a shared daily ritual. Before being sold in shops or cafes, jamu was distributed by jamu gendongs (which literally translates to jamu wearers). “These are older women who tied a bamboo basket full of bottles of jamu to their backs and walked around the neighborhoods, selling different jamus to passers-by,” Suganda explains. (And in some places in Indonesia, that’s still how jamu is sold, even though the drink is becoming more commercialized.)

Accordingly, the tradition of jamu has its roots in people helping other people, even total strangers. “There’s this cultural term in Indonesia called Gotong Royong, which means: ‘We do it together’,” explains Murdaya. “And jamu traditionally involves this community experience of mutual support.”

Although she warns that there are now many custom-made jamus created by trained herbalists to help relieve pain caused by certain conditions such as, say, digestive problems or menstrual cramps, Murdaya says the idea of ​​jamu is more akin to the American concept of making chicken. noodle soup for a loved one who is not feeling well. “Think about why Campbell’s advertises that their soup is like Mom’s,” she says. “There’s a strong narrative around it because you associate it with being sick and your mom doing whatever she can to help you get better.”

With jamu, that idea extends to any relative, friend or community member who offers you the drink because they really want something that’s good for you, says Murdaya: “That kind of caring intentionality becomes a part of the healing process.

At its core, jamu is more about preventing disease than curing it.

Emerging from a mindset of food as medicine for healthy living, jamu is holistic in its approach. “It’s designed to help the whole person, not to treat a specific disease,” says Murdaya, pointing out how it differs from the style of clinical medicine of offering solutions for particular conditions, such as high blood pressure. or hypercholesterolemia.

“The practice of jamu and the drink itself should be something we call coconut in Indonesia, which basically means that it should feel like it suits you or meets your needs.” — Murdaya

As a result, some of the natural variation between types of jamus comes from the personal nature of herbal medicine. “The practice of jamu and the drink itself should be something we call coconut in Indonesia, which basically means it has to feel like it suits you or meets your needs,” says Murdaya. “Since we all have different situations and conditions, the jamu that works for one person may not be the best for another.”

Over the centuries, local Indonesian jamu makers began to differentiate their recipes from others to accommodate these unique preferences. And as these jamu recipes have been passed down, they have also been shaped by each successive generation based on how coconut for them.

Today in the United States you will also find a variety of jamus and bottled jamu recipes, many of which contain the major anti-inflammatories of ginger and turmeric. Determine which one will be coconut for you is to come to your senses, says Murdaya. The key question to ask is deceptively simple: does it feel good to drink? “There is a level of internal self-reflection, of intuition, of being aware with jamu,” explains Murdaya.

As such, drinking jamu can – and should – spark joy in the moment. “There’s a common misconception that jamu is some kind of throat-burning tonic,” says Suganda. But since the tradition of jamu is all about feeling good overall, the right jamu for you won’t usually be uncomfortable to drink. “When people try mine, they’re usually like, ‘Oh, I can taste ginger but it’s not medicinal. And it’s really refreshing,’” Suganda says. So rather than dismissing it (as you might be tempted to do with a shot of turmeric), the idea is that you slowly and consciously savor the jamu. And doing so is as much of a wellness benefit as the benefits of the herbs you’re sure to reap.

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