It’s 4:30 am on a quiet and temperate Wednesday morning in Sugihan, a small village in Solo (also known as Surakarta) on the Indonesian island of Java. Before her three children wake up for school, Ibu Mulatsih, 40, is crouched on a stool over a wooden mortar and stone pestle as water and sugar simmer in a pot beside her. She is grinding together rice and kaempferia galanga, commonly known as aromatic ginger, to brew beras kencur, a thick golden elixir that remedies everything from a sore throat to an upset stomach. In Indonesia, it’s one of the most widely-known recipes for jamu juice.
Jamu, the general term for traditional herbal drinks that help improve digestion and maintain overall health, is a daily way of life and a cornerstone of culture across the Indonesian archipelago. “Jamu is all about accessible wellness, and that’s what makes it so powerful; it’s not just a beverage, it’s the concept of taking care of yourself,” says Metta Murdaya, founder of jamu-based beauty line Juara and author of Jamu Lifestyle: Indonesian Herbal Wellness Tradition. A typical jamu juice, which falls somewhere on the bitter and sweet spectrum in taste, is created first by blending together a combination of roots, herbs, and spices to balance taste and desired health benefits. Then, the mixture is boiled in water until it’s ready to be bottled and served at room temperature later.
Mulatsih prepares jamu ingredients, such as papaya leaves, temulawak, and rice.
While there are thousands of variations of jamu that differ between regions (in Java, recipes are more root and spice heavy, while in Bali, there are more fruit and leaves), there are the tried-and-true recipes all Indonesians know. Have a cold? There’s pahitan, which translates to “bitter” and is led by the immune system-supporting Sambiloto herb. Period cramps? There’s kunyit asam, made from anti-inflammatory turmeric and tamarind. Looking after overall wellness? There’s temulawak, its moniker a nod to its primary ingredient “Java turmeric,” which supports everything from healthy digestion to liver health. On an average day, Mulatsih brews each of these acid-bright multisensory tonics and more.
“I love making jamu because it helps people, and lets me connect to the community,” says Mulatsih whose hands are permanently turmeric stained. Each day before dawn, she brews a menu of different jamu drinks, pours them into glass bottles, and then, just as the roosters start crowing and sun begins to rise, sets out for the day. These women are known as jamu gendongs—a group Murdaya describes as “the real deal.” In Indonesia, gendong means “to carry on your back,” and historically, jamu ladies have transported their concoctions doing just that. Carrying as many as 12 glass bottles at a time in a bamboo basket strapped to their back with scarves, they walk—seemingly tirelessly—for miles at a time. However, over the past few decades, more modern jamu gendongs, like Mulatsih, have shifted to motor scooters to maximize mobility and range of distance. They are also retrofitted with wooden boxes, creating a cart-like effect. While each jamu gendong’s route is different, many combine house visits, streetside pop-ups, or dedicated market stalls to reach their loyal customer base.
There are many jamu gendong women like Mulatsih in Solo, which continues to be a cradle of jamu culture. In fact, Central Java is said to be where jamu originated; the earliest evidence is traced back to the city’s royal courts with 8th-century carvings portraying herbal health found in the famous Borobudur temple. But, perhaps the most distinct tribute of all is the Sukoharjo District’s jamu gendong statue, which depicts a jamu lady toting her basket and glass bottles in brilliant bronze. It symbolizes just how woven jamu is into the tapestry of Javanese life.
These recipes have been passed down from generation to generation and taught at home. “Togetherness is so important, and the tradition itself is handed down through women,” says Murdaya. Like many jamu gendong women, Mulatsih learned to make jamu from her mother, Giyem. A mother of two, Giyem found herself widowed at a young age and in need of a job to support her family and put her kids through school. While in mourning, a friend, wanting to help, suggested she become a jamu gendong. “She said, ‘Auntie, you should come with me and sell jamu—I’ll teach you!” recalls Giyem. “I was fighting heartbreak, but I said, ‘Okay, I want to make jamu and try to forget.’ My heart was tortured, but I kept on moving.” For her, this gesture was both life-changing and deeply meaningful. “That’s the story of the community, how we trust, believe, and support each other,” she says.
Now 66, Giyem recalls how much her daughter, Mulatsih, loved helping her make and sell jamu during her childhood. “Watching her work by herself for us, while we were so small, was a big inspiration to me,” says Mulatsih, who takes pride in being able to help support her family financially as her mom did. As demonstrated by Giyem’s story, jamu has been and continues to be a vital source of income for many Indonesian women. “It’s not just economic money; it’s economic empowerment for women entrepreneurs specifically,” says Murdaya. “They’re the backbone.”
Social connection is another way in which jamu is fruitful to Indonesian life. “Jamu creates community,” explains Murdaya. “It provides nourishment not just in financial sense but in a social one.” Whether on the job or shopping for supplies, being a jamu gendong is an inherently social activity. “I enjoy going to the market and picking the ingredients,” says Mulatsih. “I meet lots of friends; it makes me happy.” There are even close ties among jamu entrepreneurs, as demonstrated by Mulatsih’s friendship with Sri Utami, 37, a fellow jamu gendong whom she met through their shared trade. “I love meeting up with other women who sell jamu, reaching out and making friends,” says Utami, a third-generation jamu seller who drives a bright, bubblegum motor scooter. Even though they’re technically competitors in the area, there’s a true sense of camaraderie between them and other jamu gendongs in their circle. “We talk price increases and even decide them together,” she says.
But a little healthy competition isn’t bad either, as far as Utami is concerned. After all, she takes part in the annual Queen Jamu Gendong pageant hosted by Jamu Jago, a fourth-generation jamu business in Central Java. The entrants—split into two categories, the over-35 mentors and the under-35 up-and-comers—compete to be crowned as a jamu ambassador for Jamu Jago, representing the jamu gendong community at state events. “We want to bring awareness and help educate,” says Vincent Suprana, the director of operations at Jamu Jago. At the event, held live on a stage in front of judges, entrants are evaluated in an American Idol-like process on everything from the taste and smoothness of their signature recipes to the confidence with which they carry out their craft. “I joined the pageant because I wanted to learn,” says Utami. “But I also want to win the prize.”
Over the past two decades, there has been a resurgence of jamu; both in the traditional sense, and a more modern one. In the ’80s and ’90s, the rise of Western medicine saw jamu beginning to waver in popularity, says Murdaya. But over the past two decades, and even more so after the global pandemic, the rise of wellness has given new life to the millennia-old tradition. “There’s an increased desire to return to traditional healing practices because people are recognizing Western medicine is good, but not complete,” says Murdaya. “That’s why it’s the perfect time to reintroduce jamu to the world.” According to the National Library of Medicine, public interest in alternative medicine dramatically escalated in Indonesia during the pandemic, as did exports of jamu out of the country.
There are also more jamu businesses than ever, reimagining classic jamu recipes in powder sachet and bottle form for modern convenience. “I see my part in jamu as bridging the history and heritage for the younger generation and modern lifestyle,” says Nova Dewi, founder of Suwe Ora Jamu, which offers the grab-and-go version of common jamu drinks. Vanessa Kalani, the founder of herbal blend brand Nona Kalani, whose family has been in the jamu business for four generations, has the same attitude; it’s spreading the spirit and back-to-the-basics essence of jamu. “Everyone has good intentions,” says Kalani. “It’s about coming back to nature and appreciating the environment as our ancestors did.” Indonesia, is, after all, home to 30,000 different plant species, and is among the most biodiverse countries in the world.
Further adding to the spread of jamu is the steady growth in tourism to Indonesia. Jamu is being shared with travelers more and more, from dedicated cafes, such as Solo’s newly opened Djampi Jawi, to hotels, like Bali’s Hotel Tugu, where authentic jamu workshops are on offer. “More and more, jamu is appearing in places where foreigners can actually get access to it, and participate and learn,” explains Murdaya, noting this is especially true for Bali, Indonesia’s biggest tourist destination, where coffee shop culture is thriving. She also points to the power of social media for helping the word spread globally; #jamu has over 200 million views on TikTok. “Young Indonesians are taking generations of knowledge and expressing it their way, in a way that reflects their generation,” says Murdaya.
While jamu needs to be embraced in new ways to continue to enrich the lives of as many people as possible, conserving its history and contributions to Indonesian culture is essential. In recognition, the country has nominated it for UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, which helps protect the social history and cultural impact of endangered traditions. This is essential for the ecosystem of jamu gendongs, including the local businesses through which ingredients and supplies are sourced. One such place is the legendary Akar Sari, which is among the oldest jamu herb and spice shops in Solo. It has an old-world apothecary feel, from its vintage interior to its elegant staff, bedecked matching floral shift dresses. For over 30 years, Yohana Fransiska Indayati has worked at Akar Sari, stocking its shelves and bins of fresh ingredients while prescribing special jamu powders. “I just loved the people, the environment, and the jamu,” says Indayati of what first attracted her to the job in the ’90s.
Akar Sari, one of the oldest jamu ingredients shop in Solo, Central Java, Indonesia.
© Photographed by Nyimas Laula
Another institution is the bustling Nguter Jamu Market in Sukoharjo, a labyrinthine indoor/outdoor emporium with rows of vendors selling myriad offerings for jamu, from fresh ingredients to household items, such as ceramic pots and handwoven baskets. Likened to a “neighborhood bar” by Murdaya, inter-generational female shopowners have forged years, if not decades-long friendships. Take, for example, Yatmini, an 80-year-old woman who has been selling jamu supplies since 1965 through various iterations of the market. “I still enjoy working here; it’s a place to gather for family and friendship,” says Yatmini with a grin. “I’ve done this so long; I’ll do it until I die. I’m not sitting back yet.” She explains that her two jamu supply stands, which the government subsidizes to support small jamu businesses, will , eventually, be passed down to her daughter, Sunarmi, 53.
The mother-daughter pair works closely with Suwarsi Moertedjo, 74, the unofficial godmother of the Nguter Jamu Market and founder of Koperasi Jamu Indonesia (KOJAI), a cooperative dedicated to serving the jamu community. She has spent 26 years training, guiding, and supporting local jamu sellers and lobbying for better government support. While the past few years haven’t been easy, she says the challenges of COVID-19 were ultimately a “blessing in disguise,” as demand—and perhaps, even more importantly—awareness of jamu increased. “It’s the new era of Jamu in line with the concept of wellness as we know it today; physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health all have to align,” Murdaya says. “The culture of jamu as a whole, traditionally and in a modern sense, supports each of these things.”
For Moertedjo, jamu is a living part of Indonesian heritage. “I want to fight for jamu so that it doesn’t disappear,” she says. “I want it to last for generations to come.” And even for those on the cutting edge of modern jamu, the traditional jamu gendong will always represent the tradition in the purist sense. “They’re role models, a symbol of strength that empowers other women,” says Dewi. “They make sure that the story and the spirit, the culture, and the heritage are preserved.”