Seeking solace in a spice


The aroma of this smouldering concoction of tobacco cloves and flavouring, wrapped in iron cornhusk, is as Indonesian as nasi goreng, batik and wayang kulit puppets.

Its distinctive fragrance is alluring at every level in the social hierarchy, from the most senior corporate executive to the humble pedicab driver in the street who smokes kretek to get through the most difficult of times.

Kretek is the thread that ties Indonesians together.

While Indonesia might be in an economic rut, the kretek industry is still thriving because many here – young and old – cannot seem to do without a puff.

Indonesia’s most renowned author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who grew up selling cigarettes as a child, indicated as much in the foreword of the book Kretek, a path-breaking study of the subject.

‘People smoke because they feel there’s something missing if they don’t. And if the cigarettes don’t have cloves in them, there’s something missing, too. They just don’t have any flavour,’ he said.

The image that comes to most people’s minds when the word ‘cigarette’ is used today is that of a Western-style, machine-made version.

But the Indonesian kretek is a different beast altogether. For one, its manufacture is a very complex process.

The conventional cigarette contains just tobacco. But kretek possesses two other crucial ingredients – cloves and a mysterious saus or sauce made from a mixture of tobacco, fruit and herb extracts, combined with various artificial flavourings.

Tobacco is grown all over Indonesia. But the best and most sought-after tobacco is found in the sleepy town of Temanggung in the Central Java highlands.

A single brand of kretek may include more than 30 tobacco varieties and have more than 100 flavours in its sauce. Often, the tip of the paper is dipped in saccharine, which adds to the sweetness of kretek.

But as tastes and preferences vary, the different brands produced by Djarum, the largest kretek-manufacturing firm in Central Java, tend to include sweet and fruity flavours, like strawberry or raspberry.

In East Java, the largest manufacturer there, Gudang Garam, deliberately makes its kretek spicy hot and has a heavy dose of cinnamon in each roll.

When kretek was first invented in the late 19th century, it was reportedly used as a relief for sore throat and asthma. But, despite its supposed medicinal benefits, it was perceived to be a poor man’s cigarette.

Given that the kretek was much cheaper than imported and other cigarettes, it was especially popular among farmers in Central and East Java and lower-income urban dwellers, such as construction workers and pedicab drivers.

For the upper and middle classes, kretek was shunned until the 1960s. Even if they liked it, they would light it up in the privacy of their home.

But this changed in the 1970s when kretek was re-created as a sophisticated smoke for a new generation of Indonesians. Larger firms invested in expensive packaging in a deliberate attempt to emulate foreign competitors in design and quality of presentation.

Small-scale and home-based producers soon followed suit.

The New Order government’s transmigration policy saw the dispersal of kretek smoking to the outer islands, and clove cigarettes can now be found in almost every part of Indonesia.

It is not just regarded here as an exotic cigarette but is also something embedded in Indonesian cultural traditions. It can be found in the most diverse circumstances – from religious ceremonies to works of art and literature.

Even in modern times, nearly every kretek firm draws inspiration from the ancient Indonesian belief system and employs dukuns (spiritual guides), pawang hujans (rain movers) and feng shui (geomancy) specialists to ensure the well-being of their business.

In the villages, smoking the cloves can have a special spiritual significance.

In Central Java, for example, a special version called the rokok sajen is sometimes produced for use in offerings. These are made with leftover tobacco rolled in poor quality cornhusks and sold for use in religious rituals.

Smoke and incense are key elements in many Indonesian rites. Sometimes, aromatic woods are burnt to attract the attention of the spirit world, while charms and other magical devices are ‘smoked’ in the fumes of incense.

Kretek means many things to many Indonesians. For the farmer, fisherman or labourer, it is a way to release tension or fend off hunger pangs. For others, it is a way of expressing their ‘manhood’ or simply blending into the crowd.

The fragrance of clove cigarettes is as much a part of the country as sun and rain. In these hard times, smoking, not religion, politics or language, binds Indonesia.

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