What is Jamu? A wellness drink and ritual from Indonesia

DTorn apart by a pandemic that has encouraged many to rethink and reprioritize 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 projected to grow 22% per year through 2028. In particular, that reflects the growing interest in centuries-old Asian medicinal systems 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 has arrived to reach its own new wave of consumers eager to drink all of its benefits.

Best known for the ginger-infused drink of the same name, jamu is a practice of herbal medicine that emerged as early as the 13th century. Etymologically, researchers have traced it back to two ancient Javanese words: djampiwhich can be interpreted as “healing through herbs”, and esode, which has been translated simply as “health”, and its use is just as wide. Historically formulated as a preventative health measure and treatment for chronic pain and inflammatory diseases, jamu is an empirical tradition, says Metta Murdaya, founder of the jamu-inspired skincare line Juara and author of the recently published Jamu Lifestyle: Indonesian Herbal Wellness Tradition. “This just means that it has been passed down from generation to generation through word of mouth, and not so much based on a particular set of written rules or regimens,” she says.

Now, amid pandemic life, that word-of-mouth process is rapidly expanding beyond Indonesia’s borders, with sales surging among the country’s top herbal medicine producers and beverage exports surging. jamu. But for Murdaya, who divided his childhood between Jakarta, where he was born, and San Francisco, that trend is not surprising. “There’s this almost intuitive approach [to health and immunity] when an unknown virus enters the scene,” he says. “It’s that natural desire to strengthen our bodies so they can fight whatever may come.”

“In Indonesia, it is common to have the idea of ​​feeling good or feeling good like the north star.” —Metta Murdaya, author of Jamu lifestyle

But what sets jamu apart from others as, say, an immunity supplement is that it stems from Indonesia’s vision of wellness, which Murdaya describes as a major departure from America’s glorification of hustle culture and subsequent practice. to treat the damage. “In the US, for whatever reason, we tend to forget or ignore signs that we are not focused or balanced because of this need to push ourselves. It’s a hard-working culture framed around a two-week 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 to get sick before having a glass of jamu; rather, they drink it daily, Murdaya says: “The idea is that if something works once to make you feel good, you have good reason to think it will work again and again.” But given the simplicity of that premise, it also follows that the recipe for jamu and the way it is consumed can vary greatly by person and place.

In Indonesia and beyond, jamu takes many different forms

Unlike a number of other holistic medicinal systems, jamu (as an herbal medicine practice and beverage) does not have a single set of guidelines. “Flow is a very important part of the jamu tradition,” says Murdaya. In general, though, the most common ingredients in the drink include various forms of ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon (all of which have anti-inflammatory properties), along with potassium-rich coconut water.

Variations of that recipe have emerged over time due both to Indonesia’s spice trade-centric economy, which has brought Chinese, Indian, and Saudi Arabian influences into jamu, as well as the country’s own geographical diversity. “Indonesia has about 17,000 islands, so jamu varies depending on the herbs and roots native to each one,” says Shanley Suganda, an Indonesian-born, New York-based graphic designer who launched her own line of jamu, Djamu, during the pandemic. For example, Murdaya says, “Bali jamu tends to include more leaves and fresh vegetables, while Java 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 intent with which it is made and consumed has almost as much to do with whether something is classified as jamu as with the ingredients themselves.

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

To craft his own recipe, primarily a mix of locally sourced turmeric, ginger and tamarind, Suganda drew on his herbalist mother’s experience of drinking jamu and adjusted somewhat to a modern palate (as many current jam makers do). jamu in Indonesia). . “Originally I wasn’t going to include honey or lemon, but the result was a bit medicinal without them, so I added a touch of both to balance out the flavor,” she says.

This approach resonated so much with her fellow Indonesian native, Ochi Vongerichten, that she recently began serving Suganda jamu at the New York City restaurant she co-owns with her husband Cedric Vongerichten, Wayan. “Around when we open [in 2019]I was seeing turmeric and drinks like kombucha everywhere, which reminded me of how I used to drink jamu every day as a kid,” says Vongerichten. “So we thought, ‘We should serve jamu, but in a modern way.'” Across Indonesia, that same thinking has led to increasingly contemporary and creative spins on jamu, including bottled and flavored jamus and even jamu lattes made with coconut milk. , turmeric and ginger, according to Murdaya.

Still, the common denominator among these modern renderings of jamu is the same as the original: an herbal beverage developed with the intention of promoting holistic health.

Jamu has its roots in community and family care.

To fully understand jamu, it is helpful to imagine how it was originally consumed, not just as a drink, but as part of a shared daily ritual. Before it was sold in shops or cafes, jamu was distributed through jamu gendong (which literally translates as jamu carriers). “These are older women who strap a bamboo basket full of jamu bottles to their backs and walk through the neighborhoods, selling different jamus to people passing by,” says Suganda. (And in some parts of Indonesia, this is still how jamu is sold, even as the drink becomes more commercialized.)

As a result, the tradition of jamu is rooted in people helping other people, even complete strangers. “There is a cultural term in Indonesia called gotongroyong, which means, ‘We do it together,’” says Murdaya. “And jamu traditionally involves this community experience of supporting each other.”

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

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, Murdaya says: “That kind of intentional attention becomes 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 treat a specific disease,” says Murdaya, noting how it differs from the clinical medicine style of offering solutions for particular ailments, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol. tall.

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

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

Over the centuries, local Indonesian jamu makers began to differentiate their recipes from others to suit those unique preferences. And as these jamu recipes were passed down, they too were shaped by each succeeding generation based on what they felt. coconut to them

In the US today, you’ll also find a variety of different bottled jamus and jamu recipes, many of which include the key anti-inflammatory mainstays of ginger and turmeric. determine what will be coconut for you it’s about coming to your senses, says Murdaya. The key question to ask yourself is deceptively simple: Does it feel good to drink? “There is a level of inner self-reflection, of intuition, of being mindful with jamu,” says Murdaya.

As such, drinking jamu can, and should, bring some joy to the moment. “There is a common misconception that jamu is a type of tonic that burns the throat,” says Suganda. But because the jamu tradition is, at its core, more about feeling good in general than anything else, the right jamu for you usually won’t be uncomfortable to drink. “When people try mine, they usually say, ‘Oh, I can taste ginger, but it’s not medicinal. And it’s actually refreshing,’” says Suganda. So instead of throwing it back (as you might be tempted to do with a shot of turmeric), the idea is that you savor the jamu slowly and mindfully. And doing so is as much a wellness bonus as the herbal benefits you’re sure to reap.

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