Jamu power: Indonesia's cure-all elixir

Jamu power: Indonesia's cure-all elixir

The belief in the healing qualities of an ancient herbal medicine is as strong as ever in the Javan town of Yogyakarta
Jamu
Jamu maker Ibu Siswu mixing together the bitter-tasting tonic called jamu in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Editor's note: Like any food or drink bought from unlicensed street vendors, it cannot always be guaranteed as safe. The Jakarta Post recently reported on 8.23.10 that multiple deaths resulted from the consumption of Jamu in Jakarta

Tucked deep in the heart of one of Indonesia's Yogyakarta markets, Ibu Siswu sits surrounded by bowls of herbal pulp, pots of elixirs and tiny coconut shell cups. After mixing the pulp in a brownish liquid she squeezes out the juice over a strainer. The result is a bitter-tasting tonic called jamu, a traditional herbal medicine venerated by Indonesians of all ages for its power to heal ailments or enhance one’s beauty, strength or stamina.

A young man wearing a t-shirt that reads, “They grow a mustache on you,” accepts the cup from Siswu and gulps down the cloudy liquid. His friend has a harder time, and winces with each sip.

Most teenagers prefer modern jamu capsules to the bitter tonics prepared by women such as Siswu. Her clients pucker their faces as they ingest the medicine, which is best taken immediately after preparation. Siswu scoffs at such cowardice: “Jamu should never be sweet,” she says.

An ancient tradition

The practice dates back to the time of the Buddhist empire that built Borobodur, and its association with the royal family, which popularized the drinking of herbal tonics, has added to its allure. Despite the loss of many traditions due to modernization, Indonesians still cling to their belief in jamu’s transformative powers.

Jamu makers often are elderly women -- Ibu being an honorary title meaning mother -- and jamu recipes vary from seller to seller. Most are highly guarded family secrets passed down over generations.

Other jamu makers in Prawirotaman market sell the herbs used as the base for the tonics. One woman has packets of powder that can be added to water for use in baths or skin masks. Her most interesting novelty, however, is ampo, or “healthy earth,” which comes from the nearby province of Bantul. Replete with high mineral deposits, the earth is finely sliced, rolled, dried and roasted, making it a favorite snack among older women.

Disease control and fertility aid

The tonics cover nearly every infliction imaginable -- from easing labor to increasing strength to treating coughs and fevers and protecting children from disease. Mothers give jamu to their children from the time they start walking, and even animals benefit from these elixirs, since farmers feed the used pulp to their cattle.

Ibu Siswu sells mostly to women who come to shop at the market (the most popular drink is one that aids breast milk production). Men tend to visit more modern jamu shops, which stay open late and sell pre-packaged versions of jamu. These shops specialize in medicine that increases one’s sexual drive and virility. The popular brand Kuku Bima, or “nail of the god” drives up men’s sperm count; while empot-empot helps women recover their sexual drive, and according to the box, “give something more than what is expected by a husband.” 

Much like a doctor-patient relationship, people return to the jamu seller whose methods they trust. Because the ingredients are fresh and all natural there are few side effects aside from the occasional upset stomach. Over the past few decades, however, home industries have sprung up to supply modern jamu shops, and these require government licensing.

Marlina Movitasari, who runs tours of Yogyakarta’s jamu markets, says some traditional methods have become increasingly scarce -- not out of a lack of respect, but because fewer youths are learning the technique of making jamu from their elders. But if the number of customers Ibu Siswu sees each day is any indication, jamu’s popularity is still thriving.

More on Jamu

A few of the most common herbs in Jamu and their uses:
  • Turmeric = for detoxifying, to curb snoring, to ease menstrual cramping and reduce body odor.
  • Galangal = for seasickness and sore throat. Singers often drink concoctions with this root to keep their vocal cords performing at top notch.
  • Ginger = for detoxifying, morning sickness and to warm the body, improve circulation.
  • Lemongrass = for alertness, to stop gum bleeding and repel mosquitoes.
  • Tamarind = for constipation and to improve skin softness.
  • Sulfur = for rashes and itchy skin. Also used frequently in beauty products.
Where to buy: Pasar Prawirotaman, off Jl. Parangtritis, Yogyakarta
Cost: Rp1,000-5,000 (US$0.11-0.54) per glass
Additional info: Via Via runs tours of traditional markets and a home industry to see how the tonics are made. For more information e-mail travel@viaviajogja.com or call +62 274 386557.

Sara has lived in Thailand and Cambodia and currently lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. She likes to keep moving and uses these pages to write about the exciting things she learns along the way.

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