Bitter jamu, sweet relief

I could see my reflection in the glass full of rust-colored liquid.

The scrawny-looking jamu gendong from the street-side cart who made the drink goaded me on to try it. And with some degree of trepidation, I swallowed it all with one gulp.

Awful! It blasted my taste buds with a herby mustiness that almost gagged me. The bitter concoction of lily plant, tamarind, salt and raw rice was Indonesian herbal medication, or jamu, for my chronic pain in the neck.

Jamu in Indonesia today comes in a dazzling array of drinks, pills, capsules and powders to treat not just body aches, but a host of other things like fatigue, lifeless hair, pimples and even one’s sex drive.

The use of herbs for medication is as old as Javanese civilisation even if the art of producing and marketing it has changed in the 21st century.

Traditional medicine originated in the ancient palaces of Surakarta or Solo and Yogyakarta in Central Java some 1,200 years ago.

In the old days – and even now in villages in Java, Sumatra and the outer islands – jamu is the secret to good health in the absence of modern health-care infrastructure.

How does one cure a tummy ache, for example?

Simple. Get two teaspoons of Indonesian beras merah, or red rice, and mix it with a glass of boiling water. Leave it to stand until the water turns a deep shade of red.

Drink once or twice daily until the symptoms disappear. Vitamin B1 is the magic ingredient that helps the healing process.

It is just as easy to treat spots and pimples. Wash and pound jasmine leaves into a paste. Apply to the affected areas and leave it for 15 minutes before washing it off in warm water.

Indonesia is home to 30,000 species of tropical plants. Over the centuries, Indonesians have experimented with some 1,000 of these for traditional medicine.

A large number of plants and spices are selected for their healing powers. Others may have been used because of similarities between the characteristics of the plant and the ailment.

The shape, colour or texture of each plant is a sign of what ailments it can cure.

Thus, hair-like plants are supposed to make hair grow, flowers with eyes give sharper vision, heart-shaped leaves cure heart disease, red blooms stop bleeding and orchids make excellent aphrodisiacs.

Taking jamu comes with peculiar rituals in Indonesia.

Some believe, for example, ingredients added to make the medication must make up an odd number.

The jamu gendong normally includes one or three handfuls of an ingredient, or one or five cups of liquid, but never two. Other beliefs concern the need for additional ingredients for pregnant women. They are advised to include the powdered eggshells of newly hatched chickens and carbonised mouse nests in their jamu.

The eggshells are included in the hope that the baby will be healthy; they provide additional calcium while the carbon helps absorb the toxins. Villagers in Central Java believe that the mouse nests make delivery as easy as that of a mouse.

Jamu also features in Javanese wedding ceremonies. The bride’s mother normally presents a newly married couple with a box, or botekan, containing various seeds, rhizomes and dried cuttings from medicinal plants and spices.

Traditionally, these should be used on the first day of marriage and, more importantly, be planted in the garden of the couple’s new home.

This gesture is a mother’s last symbolic effort to provide a healthy life for her daughter. Many Indonesians will drink jamu only in the form of chopped herbs or powder mixed with water because these come closest to herbal medication. They put up with the bitter, unpalatable taste by adding a pinch of salt, honey or a slice of lemon to the concoction.

For the old-timers, traditional medicine in pre-packed, ready-to-swallow form holds no attraction. But times are changing fast in Indonesia. The MTV generation and those that live in cities now prefer to just pop a jamu pill.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, making and selling jamu was very much a one-man show. Indonesia’s jamu industry today is made up of some 500 companies that include 20 major players and several research centres.

A combination of modern management, marketing and technology churns out millions of pills and capsules daily. Producers of jamu have been introducing herbal remedies in the form of curing teas in sachets and tablets. Cosmetic ranges have been developed for anti-ageing and anti-wrinkling.

Beauty salons have introduced aromatherapy massages using their own local oils that include ginger, nutmeg, peppermint, lemon, cloves and cinnamon.

Packaging too is being given a new look. While advertising literature once appeared only in Bahasa Indonesia, it is now being printed in English as well.

Jamu is being prepared for foreign markets and companies are thinking of export, in line with a general worldwide trend towards more natural methods of preventive medicine.

It might taste bitter but the age-old, tried-and-tested remedies sometimes work best.

After enduring five hours under the surgeon’s scalpel to try to end an unrelenting neck pain, jamu took just one assault

on my taste buds to bring relief – at least for the time being – until the next fix.

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