Jamu in Java: Lessons From Indonesian Grandmothers

Traditional Medicine passed down through the ages
By Zoë Smith

The Jamu maker prepares ingredients for my Jamu. Photos by Zoë Smith
The Jamu maker prepares ingredients for my Jamu. Photos by Zoë Smith

“Drink this”

I’m handed a coconut shell filled with a runny, canary-yellow liquid that looks less than appealing. My Indonesian guide nods her head encouragingly. A little crowd has gathered around the rickety market stall where I stand, a lone farang [foreigner] in the depths of the market.

Voted Top Story of 2010 by GoNOMAD's Readers. Congrats Shelley!They gawk at me, waiting for me to drink the potion. I dart a look at the little old lady whose expertise has rewarded me this treat and she grins slyly, a rotten arch of teeth rocking in her gums. What the hell, I think, and knock back the liquid as if it were a long, bitter shot of tequila.

This was my first introduction to the weird and wonderful world of Jamu (traditional medicine in Indonesia) – 1300 years of herb-smashing and pestle-pummeling passed down the generations through hand-scrawled recipes and candle-lit exorcisms (well, that’s how I imagine it at least).

Yogyakarta city market

This is where it all happens; in the damp, mud-floored and tarpaulin-roofed markets on the outskirts of the city, where misshapen vegetables and home-grown clusters of galingale and cardamom hang on long strings above towering piles of star fruit and enormous, misshapen papaya.

It’s a pungent mix of scents and colors; the reek of sweating beef, the fresh bursts of mottled pink fruits and hot red chilies, the slippery film of eels glistening in the slats of sunlight. And finally, tucked away in the midst of the groceries and the fishmongers, are the Jamu sellers.

Drinking the Jamu
Drinking the Jamu

There are three Jamu sellers in this market – two who make it fresh to order and another who sells pre-packaged home remedies such as blocks of Tiger balm (50c), balls of chalk-like white paste for soothing sunburn (a big bag for a dollar) and blended oils for eczema.

These stalls are where the local women come for their ailments; it’s where they drag their drooling infants to cure them of their sniffles and hand over their swaddled babies when they break a fever.

It’s also where they come with their sexual problems or to stock up on a range of beauty products – hair-shine tonics, natural exfoiliants, made-to-order formulas for flawless skin – the Jamu sellers offer the service of a doctor, a gynecologist and a day spa, rolled into one. It’s no wonder they’re so popular.

A remedy for everything

I’m here on a tour, although, being the only one signed up, it feels more like hanging out with a mate than being paraded around the sights. My guide, Marlina, hooks her arm through mine as we weave through the crowds. I finger the clusters of herbs as she talks me through their uses – kepal fruit for reduced body odor, rose apple for fresh breath, turmeric for menstrual cramps and fertility, peppermint oil for migraines and insect stings, the list is endless.

She raves about her favorite products, pressing sachets into my hand: “You have to try this, it’s a miracle,” “This one is, how do you say, a life-saver!” She grins widely.

A market vendor selling everything from rice crackers to sachets of pre-made Jamu
A market vendor selling everything from rice crackers to sachets of pre-made Jamu

I ask her if she comes here without the tours and she looks surprised at my question. “Of course! I’ve been coming to the same Jamu seller since I was a little girl. My Mother would come here before we saw a doctor. Jamu is cheaper and easier than modern medicine and made for your individual needs.” She winks at me. “And it really works!”

Tasting the Jamu

Ever since my teenage rambles around the souks of Marrakech yielded a foolproof acne cure in the form of a greasy red ‘ointment,’ I have been somewhat fascinated with natural medicine and have made a point of searching out local remedies in the many countries I have visited.

Jamu may still be a common aid to Javanese lifestyle but it’s rarely available to tourists. Many Jamu makers refuse to cater to foreigners and even if they do, the language barrier can prove an impossible wall (good luck finding a genuine Jamu maker who has mastered the English language!). Thankfully, I’ve found one of the few places that offer guides to navigate your explorations of the market and for a few bucks can get you consultations, traditional massages and even a lesson in making your own beauty products.

A commercial Jamu store selling herbal cures for just about anything you can think of
A commercial Jamu store selling herbal cures for just about anything you can think of

I approach my first Jamu session with a mixture of trepidation and fascination and after a briefly translated diagnosis (with no major ailments to speak of, I request treatment for my ever present traveler’s diarrhea) I watch in disbelief as my medicine is put together.

The process is a blur of ingredients; bare, wrinkled fingers dip in and out of the various herbs and residues laid out on the surrounding table – a pinch of this, a dollop of that, a snapped chunk of something else. It’s molded together by hand, smashed with a hammer, rolled to extract the juice, sieved several times to achieve a liquid consistency and finally, decanted into my coconut ‘cup.’

The liquid is bitter and strong with an acerbic aftertaste, but thankfully a sweetened version is downed immediately after the first and the resulting flavor is more like a sour Lemsip. I wait for some immediate miracle to occur but nothing happens at first. The locals laugh into their sleeves and turn back to their work. Marlina puts her hand on my shoulder and whispers “Be patient.”

Jamu for fertility, sexual performance, menstrual problems... even a morning after pill!
Jamu for fertility, sexual performance, menstrual problems… even a morning after pill!

Needless to say, it would be another five days before I went to the bathroom again.

A foray into the ‘sex shops’ of Indonesia

With my first tasting under my belt, we leave the market and head to a commercial Jamu shop, which seems more akin to a western sex shop for all the scantily clad advertisements that plaster the sachets and bottles before us.

Jamu is not only employed for health and beauty; Javanese men and women alike swear by its miracle acts in the bedroom.

The rows and rows of ‘treatments’ leave me shocked. Ointments, creams, drinks, pessaries, for just about everything you can think of – aphrodisiacs, fertility treatments, a chalk-like tube for tightening your nether regions! There’s even a type of morning-after pill.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d pulled out a cure for AIDS. This is, after all, the region where Mak Erot (the lady famed for her ‘magic’ that saw men rush from miles around to lengthen their… well, you get the picture!) became famous, so I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised but… well, I’m still shocked.

A Jamu preparing ingredients at her house
A Jamu preparing ingredients at her house

Home remedies

Leaving the bright lights of the ‘sex shop’ behind us, we head to visit another Jamu maker, this time at her home, tucked away down a maze of cobbled-stone alleyways. Marlina shows me a few tricks whilst our Ibu (the affectionate nickname given to Jamu makers, meaning mother) prepares the ingredients.

Who would have known that softened sticky rice, fresh cinnamon cloves and water could make a facemask so effective that my skin feels baby soft and freshly moisturized the moment I wash it clean?

It’s one of many natural health secrets passed down from mother to daughter – in a country where skin, health and fertility are to women what calorie-counting and personal trainers are to their western counterparts. Knowing these remedies could be the key to, as a local friend of mine puts it, ‘being beautiful and getting a husband.’ Jamu, therefore, is big business is Java.

And with that said, we drink our second and last Jamu tonics of the day – a mixture that I am assured will leave me ‘radiant, fertile and glowing with inner health.’ The jury’s out on that one…

Further Information

Via Via Café & Travel Agency is one of 12 travelers cafes around the world offering a restaurant, library and meeting area for travelers as well as numerous informative tours in the Yogyakarta area led by English-speaking, local guides.

The Jamu & Massage tours run every day from 9am till 1pm or 2pm but must be booked 24 hours in advance. 120.000Rp per person (at time of writing around US$14) including ingredients, massage, English speaking guide and transport. Full details can be found on the website.

If you are in the area, drop in and see the travel agents – they can often tailor tours to your individual needs.

Via Via Café
Jalan Prawirotaman 30
Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia
Tel: +62 274.386.577
Opening hours: Every day 7:30am to 11pm, Friday till 12pm

Zoe Smith

Zoë Smith is an ESL teacher, NGO worker and writer currently based in rural Cambodia.

Read Zoë Smith’s story: Discovering Muang Ngoi, Laos: Village Life on the Nam Ou River

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