Indonesia

Southeast Asia is brimming with unique cultural practices, and none are as fascinating as the healing powers of Indonesian Jamu. Our guest travel expert delves into his first experience with this mysterious elixir.


Emerging from the steamy and noisy food market in the Kotagede neighborhood of Yogjakarta, I took a moment to catch my breath and search for my friend and tour guide. A proud resident of ‘Jogja,’ as the city is affectionately known, Danu had spent weeks showing me each and every corner of his royal city.

A little far from the center, Kotagede was one of the last stops of the extensive and immersive cultural program that Danu had spontaneously designed for me. I would soon find out that a medicinal drink known as Jamu would be my last little ‘treat.’

Jamu making

Most visitors to this charming old town, now a suburb of Jogja, fall into two categories: those interested in Indonesia’s silver trade and those seeking out the first capital of the Mataram Kingdom, which predates the more frequently visited Kraton by centuries.

But being one of Jogja’s most traditional and historic neighborhoods also makes it the perfect place to hunt out Indonesia’s most significant contribution to the enigmatic world of herbal medicine.

Searching for Ms. Jamu

“What are you doing?” I asked Danu after finding him perched on a bench next to one of Indonesia’s ubiquitous instant coffee stands.

“I’m looking for Ms. Jamu,” he replied, as he scanned the colorful crowd of headscarf-clad women shuffling back to their motorbikes, having finished their daily food shop.

“Who is Jamu?” I asked, trying to follow his gaze across the market furor. His search hindered by my apparently amusing inquiry, he looked at me and giggled.

“Jamu is not the person,” he replied. “Jamu is what the person is selling! There she is!”

He was pointing triumphantly at a seated women encircled by a number of men and women, who were quietly hunched over as they slurped from coconut shells. A small wooden table, on top of which were ten or so plastic bowls containing golden pastes and dubious liquids, separated the seller from her customers. This was her portable street bar, and placed on top were her ingredients for Jamu.

We took a seat next to the slurping patrons, who upon noticing my arrival, looked up and grinned with yellow-stained lips. They may have been drinking from half a dried coconut, but the liquid inside was evidently not coconut water, or anything like it. Danu ordered in Javanese and Ms. Jamu got straight to work, kneading, massaging and squeezing her ingredients together with her strong, leathery fingers.

I was obviously watching a seasoned professional – and I was captivated. Danu began to explain to me what we were about to drink, though my eyes never once left the fingers of this potions master as she concocted her medicinal elixir.

Jamu making 2

Jamu is a holistic medicinal system to maintain good health but also to cure specific ailments. Alongside herbal medicines to consume orally, massage, diet advice and medicinal oil applications may also be prescribed as part of a Jamu ‘treatment.’ Interestingly,Jamu has strong connections with South Asian Ayurvedic treatments and philosophy except that the herbs used in Jamu are indigenous to Indonesia.

A Jamu health tonic is most commonly used to promote good health and well being, rather than actually to cure something specific. There are around a dozen basic Jamu tonic recipes but the main ingredient is turmeric. Turmeric contains curcumin, which stains the water yellow and is also the distinct color in the dry powdered version of turmeric that you see in spice racks at home.

For the medicine, however, only the root should be used. Curcumin has since been the subject of modern medical tests, and has been shown to assist in many ailments as an anti-inflammatory.

The Art of Jamu Making

Ginger and tamarind, together with turmeric, make up the remedial trinity of Jamu, and all three are known for their antioxidant properties. Alongside many other affinities, turmeric is renowned as a bowel cleanser and ginger is known for its circulatory properties. Tamarind is rich in vitamin C and is a natural preservative.

The warming effect of ginger is also believed to combat the ill effects of wind and cold; Indonesians commonly talk about masukangin, or ‘when the wind enters the body’, as the most common cause of sickness. These three ingredients are mashed to make a pulp, then water is added and the mixture is boiled to make a liquid, which is then passed through a sieve, bottled, cooled and stored.

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Jamu makers prepare a concoction using a base tonic and add pre-prepared herbal pastes to treat a range of specific ailments including indigestion, hypertension, liver disease, diabetes, as well as potions that enhance sexual performance. I wasn’t suffering from any particular issues myself when visiting Jamu makers and therefore I’ve only ever had the health maintenance mixture.

If unaccustomed, the taste is extremely unusual – my travel buddy, and the photographer behind the picture above, nearly vomited when he tried it. This is all despite the fact they use various flavorings such as lime, salt, honey and palm sugar to make the Jamu more palatable.

Whenever I see a Ms. Jamu in Indonesia, I sit myself down and order a cup. I must admit that I’m still not used to the flavor, but the experience of sitting on the street and chatting to a master healer who’s skills have been passed down generations, is always worth enduring the taste!

Experiencing Jamu

For all of Indonesia’s incredible cultural experiences, making Jamu with an expert has to be on the top of that list. The best way to do it? Get out there, roll up your sleeves and learn how to make it from scratch. Some villages specialise in the production of Jamu on what is still a small scale (in comparison to the major factories that now produce it). A hands-on Jamu-making workshop is far and away the best way to experience this traditional medicine at its very best.

Buffalo Tours offers an exceptional experience to learn the ancient art of Jamu making from an expert after picking the fresh ingredients yourself! It’s all part of our Local Life tours, getting you closer to the heart of authentic Asia.

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Josh’s obsession with Southeast Asia lead him to specialise in the region at SOAS, University of London, where he focused on Indonesia and Vietnam. Although a passionate explorer, he couldn’t resist settling down in Hanoi where he writes freelance travel pieces and manages hanoihideaway.com, a site dedicated to the city's eclectic cafe scene.

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