What Is Jamu? A Wellness Drink And Ritual From Indonesia
Best known for the ginger-infused drink of the same name, jamu is an herbal-medicine practice that emerged as early as the 13th century. Etymologically, researchers have traced it back to two ancient Javanese words: djampi, which can be interpreted as “healing through herbs,” and oesodo, which has been translated simply as “health”—and its usage is just as broad in nature. Historically formulated as both a preventative health measure and a treatment for chronic pain and inflammatory diseases, jamu is an empirical tradition, says Metta Murdaya, founder of the jamu-inspired skin-care line Juara and author of the recently released Jamu Lifestyle: Indonesian Herbal Wellness Tradition. “This just means it’s been passed down by multiple generations through word-of-mouth, and it doesn’t rely so much on a particular set of rules or written regimens,” she says.
Now, in the midst of pandemic life, that word-of-mouth process is rapidly expanding beyond the borders of Indonesia, with sales among the country’s top herbal-medicine producers jumping up and exports of jamu beverages increasing, too. But to Murdaya—who split her childhood between Jakarta, where she was born, and San Francisco—that trend isn’t surprising. “There’s this almost intuitive approach [to health and immunity] when an unknown virus enters the picture,” she says. “It’s that natural desire to strengthen our bodies so they’re able to fight whatever might be coming.”
“In Indonesia, it’s common to have the idea of feeling good or feeling well as your north star.” —Metta Murdaya, author of Jamu Lifestyle
But what differentiates jamu from the likes of, say, an immunity supplement is that it springs from Indonesia’s take on wellness, which Murdaya describes as a vast departure from the United States’s glorification of hustle culture and subsequent practice of treating the damage. “In the U.S., for whatever reason, we tend to forget or ignore signs that we’re not centered or we’re not balanced because of this need to push ourselves. It’s a work-hard culture framed around two weeks of vacation,” says Murdaya. “But in Indonesia, it’s common to have the idea of feeling good or feeling well as your north star.”
That’s why many Indonesians don’t typically wait to get sick before reaching for a glass of jamu; rather, they drink it daily, says Murdaya: “The idea is that, if something works once to make you feel well, you have good reason to think it’ll work again and again.” But given the simplicity of that premise, it also follows that the recipe for jamu and the way it’s consumed can vary widely depending on the person and place.
Across Indonesia and beyond, jamu takes on many different forms
Unlike a number of other holistic medicinal systems, jamu (as an herbal medicine practice and a beverage) does not have a single set of guidelines. “Fluidity is very much a part of the jamu tradition,” says Murdaya. In general, though, the most common ingredients of the drink include various forms of ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon (all of which have anti-inflammatory properties), alongside potassium-rich coconut water.
Variations on that recipe have emerged over time both because of Indonesia’s spice-trade-focused economy—which has introduced the influences of China, India, and Saudi Arabia to jamu—and also the country’s own geographical diversity. “Indonesia has about 17,000 islands, so the jamu varies based on the herbs and roots that are native to each,” says Shanley Suganda, an Indonesian-born, New York-based graphic designer who launched her own jamu line, Djamu, during the pandemic. For instance, Murdaya says, “Bali’s jamu tends to include more leaves and fresh greens, whereas Javanese jamu has more of the roots like ginger and galangal, simply because of what’s available.” It’s the unique healing qualities of herbs and roots native to each island that make the resulting jamu jamu. In other words? The intent with which it’s made and consumed has almost as much to do with something being classified as jamu as the particular ingredients themselves.
The intent with which it’s made and consumed has almost as much to do with something being classified as jamu as the particular ingredients themselves.
To craft her own recipe—primarily a blend of locally sourced turmeric, ginger, and tamarind—Suganda drew from the experience of drinking her herbalist mother’s jamu and adjusted a bit for a modern palate (as many current jamu makers in Indonesia do, too). “Originally, it wasn’t going to include honey or lemon, but the result was a bit medicinal without, so I added a touch of both to balance the taste,” she says.
This approach resonated so much with fellow Indonesia native Ochi Vongerichten that she recently began serving Suganda’s jamu at the New York City restaurant she co-owns with her husband Cedric Vongerichten, Wayan. “Around when we opened [in 2019], I was seeing turmeric and beverages like kombucha everywhere, which reminded me of how I used to drink jamu every day as a kid,” Vongerichten says. “So, we thought, ‘We should serve jamu—but in a modern way.’” Across Indonesia, that same thought has led to increasingly contemporary, creative spins on jamu, including bottled and flavored jamus and even jamu lattes made with coconut milk, turmeric, and ginger, according to Murdaya.
Even so, the common denominator among these modern depictions of jamu is the same as in the original: an herbal drink developed with the intent of promoting holistic health.
Jamu is rooted in community and family care
To fully understand jamu, it’s helpful to picture the way it was originally consumed—not just as a drink but as part of a shared daily ritual. Before it was ever sold in stores or cafés, jamu was distributed by way of jamu gendongs (which translates literally to jamu carriers). “These are older women who would tie a bamboo basket filled with bottles of jamu to their backs and walk around neighborhoods, selling different jamus to people who passed by,” says Suganda. (And in some places in Indonesia, this is still how jamu is sold, even as the drink becomes increasingly commercialized.)
As a result, the tradition of jamu has its roots in people helping other people—even complete strangers. “There’s this cultural term in Indonesia called gotong royong, which means, ‘We do it together,’” says Murdaya. “And jamu traditionally involves this communal experience of supporting one another.”
While she caveats that there are now many tailored jamus available, created by trained herbalists to help relieve pain caused by certain conditions like, say, digestive issues 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’s not feeling well. “Think about why Campbell’s advertises by saying their 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 offering the drink to you because they genuinely want something that’s good for you, says Murdaya: “That sort of intentionality of care becomes a part of the healing process.”
At its core, jamu is more about preventing illness than curing it
Emerging from a food-as-medicine mindset for healthy living, jamu is holistic in its approach. “It’s designed to help the whole person, not treat a specific disease,” says Murdaya, outlining how it differs from the clinical-medicine style of offering solutions for particular ailments, like, say high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
“The practice of jamu and the drink itself has to be something we call cocok in Indonesia, which essentially means it needs to feel like it suits you or fits your needs.” —Murdaya
As a result, part of the natural variation among types of jamus stems from the personal nature of herbal medicine. “The practice of jamu and the drink itself has to be something we call cocok in Indonesia, which essentially means it needs to feel like it suits you or fits your needs,” says Murdaya. “Since we all have different situations and conditions, the jamu that works for one person might not be best for another.”
Over centuries, local Indonesian jamu makers began to differentiate their recipes from others in order to accommodate those unique preferences. And as these jamu recipes were passed down, they were also molded by each successive generation based on what felt cocok to them.
Today, in the U.S., you’ll also find a variety of different bottled jamus and jamu recipes, many featuring the key anti-inflammatory mainstays of ginger and turmeric. Determining which one will be cocok for you is about returning to your senses, says Murdaya. The key question to ask is deceptively simple: Does it feel good to drink? “There’s a level of internal self-reflection, of intuition, of being mindfully aware with jamu,” says Murdaya.
As such, drinking jamu can—and should—spark some joy in the moment. “There’s a common misconception that jamu is a burn-your-throat kind of tonic,” says Suganda. But because the jamu tradition is, at its essence, more about feeling good overall than anything else, the right jamu for you won’t typically be uncomfortable to drink. “When people try mine, they’re usually like, ‘Oh, I can taste the ginger but it’s not medicinal. And it’s actually refreshing,’” says Suganda. So, rather than tossing it back (as you might be tempted to do with a turmeric shot), the idea is that you’d slowly, mindfully savor the jamu. And the act of doing so is as much a wellness upside as the herb-driven benefits you’re sure to reap.
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