• Agustiah

Pushing Jamu Forward: A reflection of Ancestral Heirloom.

Wellington - New Zealand



"Jamu is a valuable gift, precious heirloom from the Indonesian ancestors. Despite many efforts from many sectors, this heirloom has yet to reveal its full glory. In the light of the global pandemic, there's a huge opportunity to polish this heirloom and unleash its power to boost Health and the Economy."

In case you haven't noticed, it's only a few zoom meetings away until the end of the year. In many parts of the world, this time calls for reflection on what has been achieved and accomplished still. That's right, it's time for that cliché yet enduringly essential: The New Year's Resolution. If you're like most of the world population, almost certainly, your New Year's Resolution will include something on the line of exercising more, eating and drinking healthier, and the likes. So the principle is the desire to be healthy, especially when the global pandemic threatens our very existence. Not surprisingly, it is eagerly responded by perceptive businesses, with the flooding of functional food and beverages in the market, promising specific health benefits.


Not all functional food and drink are hypes, though. In fact, some have long historical and empirical data to support efficacy, Kombucha, and Kefir to name a few. Indonesians don't have to search far and hard for time-tested functional beverages in this part of the world. They have a national heritage in the form of Jamu that has been around for centuries, with empirically proven health benefits.

Brief History of Jamu

The word Jamu is derived from the Javanese word Jawa, which means Javanese/ Java, and ngramu means mixing or gathering. Thus, it can be roughly translated as the concoction made by the Javanese or the concoction that originated from Java. Another theory suggests that Jamu derived from ancient Javanese terms jampi and oesodo, which denote medicine and mantra for health. From artefacts and ancient texts, historians deduced that the tradition to concoct herbs and other natural materials into functional beverages to prevent and cure illnesses had already taken deep root in 1300 A.D. in the Kingdom of Mataram. This area covered central and eastern Java. Numerous sculptures and reliefs found in prominent temples in these areas depict the practice of Jamu making and consumption. Some suggested Jamu was initially consumed by the royal families, then the practice cascaded to the broader society. There's even a popular notion that the olden days' knights and warriors allegedly consumed Jamu to draw strength and power, unlike Asterix & Obelix and their magic potion, which could possibly be the Gaulish version of Jamu.


The Rise and Fall of Jamu

Jamu has been deeply woven into the Indonesian societal fabric for centuries. At times it shone brilliantly, just like the golden threads in Batik Prada, but at times the threads are shrouded by more colourful elements. Let me illustrate. During the Dutch occupation in the early 17th century, there was an increased interest in Jamu as herbal medicines. Many European physicians and pharmacists studied the medicinal properties of Jamu. Some even made recommendations to replace European pharmaceutical preparations with the more available and effective traditional concoctions.

The popularity of Jamu continued until the early 20th century when a scientific and technical breakthrough in Europe replaced western physicians' and western-educated-Indonesian physicians' interests in traditional remedies with more modern medical practices. And it's not until half a century later that some Indonesian physicians started to look back at Jamu, realising that It would be impossible to provide adequate healthcare to the general population by solely relying on expensive and less accessible western technology and pharmaceutical preparations.


Throughout the rise and fall of western's interests in Jamu, the general population regularly consumed the beverage. At that time, drinking Jamu has become an integral part of life to prevent and cure illnesses and promote general health and well-being, even for beauty care among women. Not unlike going to hot yoga and/ or taking multivitamins and supplements these days. To cater for the population's healthy appetite for Jamu, many home-based enterprises emerged in and around Java. Primarily these small enterprises produced what's then become popular as Jamu Gendong or Piggy-back Jamu, referring to how these functional beverages are carried by the sellers: by piggy-backing a large wooden container, holding different bottles/ types of Jamu.


Variety of Jamu

There are many different varieties of Jamu Gendong offering various health benefits. Some tallied 8 to 15 varous concoctions in one basket of Jamu Gendong. One of the most popular is Kunyit Asam, Turmeric Sour. Some might wonder if this drink is a distant and more health conscious cousin of Whiskey Sour; I will let you be the judge. As the name suggests, the hero ingredient in Turmeric Sour is Turmeric, a rhizome from the plant Curcuma longa. Turmeric contains bioactive compounds that possess anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Therefore, Turmeric is often associated with fighting infection, reducing inflammation, preventing digestive disorders, and maintaining overall body fitness. However, a concoction made from Turmeric has a bitter taste; hence sour tamarind and sugar (in many case Javanese brown sugar is used) are added to create flavour balance and make this healthy drink more palatable. It an evident that old traditional healers are flavour-woke. Apart from adding sourness in Turmeric Sour, Tamarind (fruit from the plant Tamarindus indica) is also rich in vitamins and antioxidants. Therefore, not surprisingly, the combination of Turmeric and tamarind in Turmeric Sour make a legendary chart-topping duet in the Jamu chart.


Another type of Jamu is recently shot into stardom and baptized as Jamu Jokowi. This simple Jamu is made by brewing sliced Turmeric, Ginger and Temulawak (Curcuma zanthorrhiza). The Indonesian President has been drinking this concoction for the past 18 years and praised its efficacy in health promotion.


The Jamu Paradox

With the steady popularity of Jamu, more significant and more modern Jamu industries also started to grow. This brought in a new era of industrialized Jamu and the popularization of other, more convenient preparations such as tablets and instant powdered forms of Jamu. While industrialization and instantiation helped boost Jamu industries, one can't help but contemplate if it also gradually weakened the traditional threads that bind Jamu with its origins and centuries of ancestral wisdom and knowledge in traditional healing behind it. Without this vital connection, Jamu risks being seen just as old-fashioned medication.


On top of the industrialization of Jamu, another happenstance in Jamu-verse that gave Jamu a negative reputation was the illicit practice of adding synthetic drugs into Jamu preparations to give instantaneous therapeutic effects. (It's worth noting that as traditional preparations, the health benefits from Jamu can only be observed after some period of regular intake). However, upon regular and prolonged consumption, which is the common habit of Jamu consumers, these adulterated Jamu can cause serious side effects such as renal and liver failures. Thus, not surprisingly, this unscrupulous practice raised suspicion on Jamu and further estranged Jamu from its traditional values.


On the other hand, preserving Jamu in its best-known traditional form of bottled herbal/ natural ingredients extracts won't help boost Jamu prevalence and consumption. Modern approaches are needed to make Jamu more relevant to the broader demography of consumers and to fit with the contemporary lifestyle. It is, therefore, not a trivial challenge to strike a balance on giving Jamu modern attributes and functionality while keeping a strong link to its origin that carry time-honoured knowledge and wisdom in traditional healing.


Jamu in the Global Pandemic and Beyond

Coming to the end of 2021. The global pandemic has been around for almost 2 yearss creating havoc across the globe and turning things upside down. New opportunities emerged despite the many tragedies and losses that rolled with the pandemic. Indeed, as the world population seek better protection against Covid and better health in general, the business of Functional Beverages is showing significant growth with no sign of slowing down. This positive impact can also be seen on Jamu, with the market reporting more and more consumers asking for Jamu. However, compared with the situation in other countries where functional beverages like kombucha and kefir had invaded supermarket shelves, household fridges and even restaurants and cafes, Jamu penetration still leaves enormous room for improvement. There's been a stir in the market with the launch of Jamu Bar and incorporation of Jamu in cocktails and mocktails in restaurants in urban cities across Indonesia. However, most of these modern revitalizing Jamu are happening in upscale markets. There's still a void of activities that can reach the critical mass needed to bring Jamu to the front and centre of the general population.



Another way to speed up the Jamu journey to fandom is the Digital Highway. Again, there have been efforts to make Jamu go digital, and there have been sellers using digital platforms to appeal to the broader market. However, we haven't yet seen the level of presence and popularity that indicate product acceptance and consumption by the general population.


The demand for health-promoting products, including healthy drinks, is at an all-time high since the pandemic happened almost 2 years ago. The ingredients, knowledge and body of evidence for a healthy drink are available in the form of Jamu. But the challenge remains: How to make Jamu the healthy drink of choice and become part of the modern healthy lifestyle that it could and should be?

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