All over the islands of Indonesia, women carrying baskets of an herbal, rich, tonic-like drink called jamu travel on foot from household to household, region to region, selling their bottles until none are left. That’s how it was a millennium ago, or at least that’s how the story is told. Now, the brew’s popularity has waned over the years, but Jakarta-based company SoJamu is trying to revive the ancient drink, whose origins date back to the 13th century. Using traditional methods and ingredients, SoJamu carries the legacy of this bright and layered elixir into the future.
Nova Dewi founded SoJamu in 2009 when she noticed the decline of the drink in popular Indonesian culture. “It is a startup under the spirit of feeling the need for the young generation of Indonesia to know more about jamu,” she tells COOL HUNTING. “There is a gap in knowledge because history has not been re-shared.” This gap, Dewi explains, is “due to the hit of the industrial era.” Jamu, which has always been local, traditional and made by hand, does not easily translate to machines.
This generation gap has been compounded by colonization, which spread the dogma that the West is best, an oppressive notion that can still be found today. As the founder continues, “Indonesia has been colonized by many different countries because of the important goods, herbs and spices that are well planted and harvested. So I think the mindset is that everything from abroad is cooler. Notice how locally made goods do not were as favored as American coffee or Korean products, Dewi called to revitalize the meaning of the drink, especially now that it is recognized as a historical product by Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture.
“I think [jamu] is something that is re-understood and re-celebrated and re-celebrated because people back then were always trapped in the thought that jamu is just jamu, a drink. But I think there is much more,” continues Dewi. As a tradition usually practiced and continued by women, jamu plays a major role not only in the ancient history of the islands, but also in the place of women in them.
The drink is completely natural, consisting (sometimes only) of herbs, roots and spices. At the heart of the practice is wellness and wisdom. The powerful and healthy brew is often consumed for anti-inflammation, increased immunity, better stamina and the ancient holistic health philosophy specific to Indonesia that it encapsulates.
“It’s actually about the ritual, healthy wishes, because the name ‘jamu’ comes from the old Javanese word ‘djampi’ and ‘oesodo’. So “djampi” is like “prayer” and “oesodo” means “health”, explains Dewi . “This is how we share our health story and our wellness story, not only in Indonesia, but with the world.”
SoJamu makes different flavors of jamu – some more ginger-forward, slightly sweet or slightly spicy – but all are handmade and cold-pressed and based on Dewi’s late grandmother’s recipe that is slightly adapted to target a younger audience. While each variation is already punchy, layered and complex, Dewi notes that many people mix them together, so much so that Jamu mixologists have built a passionate community of their own.
When it comes to making jamu, Dewi uses a slow and gentle process that begins with squeezing the juices from the various roots and plants, a method not unlike making almond milk through a cheesecloth. Manually, the juices are squeezed from the grated ingredients, which are pressed by hand and pulled in different directions to squeeze out the liquids. They are then sterilized, mixed and cleaned, all of which happens in small batches and through natural, simple processes.
“Ingredients are all over the Indonesian islands, such as nutmeg is from Banda Island and pepper from western Indonesia,” says Dewi. While many of these roots are familiar around the world, SoJamu uses specific cultivars and ingredients of a certain age, many of which are unique to the islands. “All the ingredients are categorized by age. So the turmeric is not young turmeric that we use for cooking, but the old part of the turmeric. We call it the mother… the mother roots. The turmeric takes about nine months to cultivate, while ginger – which SoJamu uses the red, white and black species – takes about 15 months.
Dewi works with multi-generational farmers to get these roots and also helps coach them on re-cultivation. “We are part of the ethnobotanical movement to plant what is now gone,” says the founder, noting how many of these herbs used to be used in Jamu. “In fact, Indonesia has 30,000 species of medicinal plants and currently we only use about 1,700 of these plants. So we are in the process of re-cultivating the plants that have gradually disappeared.”
Since launching SoJamu in 2009, Dewi has noticed a change in attitudes towards jamu, with many younger people starting to drink it again – but the work is far from over. “I support re-cultivation, but if the product and ingredients are sustainable, then we can create a product based on my late grandmother’s notes on some recipes. [with ingredients] that we don’t have much at the moment,” she says. Until then, Dewi will continue to empower Indonesians, making zesty tonics that boost biodiversity and celebrate history.
Images courtesy of SoJamu