Archive for the ‘cuisine’ Category

The triumph of jamu

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European interest in Indonesian traditional healing has had its ups and downs, but in Java jamu reigns supreme, as it has for a long, long time

Every morning across Java, women carry baskets on their backs filled with bottles containing liquid mixtures to sell on the street. These intriguing fluids, which the women prepare themselves, are known as jamu, and are traditional Indonesian herbal medicines. Traditional Indonesian healers define health in terms of a balance between the polarities of hot and cold, and dry and wet. If the human body becomes too hot, as is the case during fevers, cooling vegetables and herbs are prescribed. In a similar vein, colds are treated with spices, which heat up the body.

The jamu sellers may seem unassuming, but to many these women are walking, talking pharmacies. On their backs are possible remedies for just about everything from skin problems and rheumatic pain to sexual dysfunction. Other preparations claim to boost energy and concentration, reduce stress and enhance youth. There are even jamu concoctions that purport to have cosmetic effects. Jamu is also big business. In addition to these individual jamu sellers, a dozen industrial manufacturers (among them Nyonya Meneer, Jago, Air Mancur and Jamu Iboe) sell preparations in their own stores, in pharmacies and in small shops. There are now even exclusive jamu shops in upscale malls, targeting middle-class customers. The promotional material of the jamu industry often emphasises the ancient roots of Indonesian traditional herbal medicine and its historical links to the courts of Solo and Yogyakarta. Indeed, archaeological findings, including a number of relief carvings on the famous Borobudur temple in Central Java, indicate that herbs and spices have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Being located at the cross-roads of international trading routes, the Indonesian archipelago has a long history of contact with Chinese and Arab traders, who introduced plants, herbs and spices, and brought with them insights from Indian Ayurvedic traditions, traditional Chinese medicine, Arab healing practices and ancient Greek medicine. The abundant forests of Java provided healers with a great range of ingredients, including ginger, Javanese turmeric, galangal and cardamom, which are all still popular jamu ingredients. Even tree bark was used for intestinal complaints, despite being extremely bitter.

At the fifth meeting of jamu manufacturers in 2007, President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono appealed to industry representatives to increase their exports. Increasing awareness of natural remedies and alternative medicine could lead to a greater interest in what Indonesia has to offer, but selling jamu to the world is not easy, and virtually all jamu produced in Indonesia is currently consumed there. Jamu has not always suffered from such a lack of international appeal. As a matter of fact, European physicians were once fascinated with Java’s remedies. But with the World Health Organisation estimating that up to 70 per cent of Indonesians use it on a regular basis, jamu is not going anywhere.

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