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Jamu: Giving Indonesian traditional medicine a modern makeover

Article-Jamu: Giving Indonesian traditional medicine a modern makeover

© Good Jamu Jamu: Giving Indonesian traditional medicine a modern makeover
Jamu, an ancient Indonesian craft practised exclusively by women, is getting a modern makeover in the functional beverage space.

The herbal medicine tradition, once the preserve of royal families, is finding a new, younger audience thanks to a startup in the Netherlands.

For me, it's part of my cultural heritage,” says Anna Uspessij, founder of Good Jamu.

Jamu: A preventative wellness craft passed down from mother to daughter

Jamu, a word from Javanese tribal language, refers to traditional medicine from plants. This usually comes in the form of preventative elixirs, designed to be consumed every day to maintain holistic wellbeing, rather than targeting specific ailments.

The main ingredients are ginger and turmeric, but there are as many versions as there are people consuming it: a 2012 survey by the Indonesian Ministry of Health recorded more than 15,770 different jamu recipes within the archipelago. These recipes are handed down from mother to daughter; the only time when men are involved is where heavy labour is required.

Jamu is such an integral part of Indonesian culture that the country has nominated it for inclusion on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

Uspessij, who grew up in a Dutch/Moluccan household, was inspired to learn more about the practice while living in Bali, during which time she had the chance to learn under a jamu master.

In Asia, it's so normal to look at whatever nature brings you, [and how] you can use that to benefit your own health… In Indonesia, that's jamu,” she explained.

You wouldn't go to a doctor, you would go to a jamu gendong – that's like a jamu master – and then you tell her … if you're not feeling that well or you might have certain kinds of problems that you feel you have in your body. She would then get different kinds of herbs and make a version for you.

Giving a modern twist to an ancient practice

Historically, royal families would keep jamu masters in their court to provide them with elixirs or beauty masks.

Then, it was not available or accessible for everybody,” Uspessij said. “But then these women thought, ‘We live in these communities, and that's who we should be catering to and be caring for.’”

When she returned to the Netherlands after eight years in Bali, around the time the pandemic hit, people suddenly seemed “more focused on how you can be kinder to your body”, she said.

That was the point where we realised that the European market is also ready for [this] fresh but authentic wellness,” she added.

Supply chain integrity: Sourcing single-origin ingredients

Ingredient quality and authenticity goes to the heart of the Good Jamu brand, said Uspessij, which uses fresh herbs and spices such as turmeric, ginger, tamarind, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, and lemongrass.

The startup works with a partner called Pacific Spices to “ensure a short and fair supply chain”. A member of the Royal Dutch Spice Association, Pacific Spices sources single-origin ingredients from farmers across different Indonesian islands. Not only does this mean the quality is high, but it also offers the opportunity “to nurture the community”, said Uspessij.

She added: “We also try to make sure that there is no child labour and the living conditions of these farmers are good, they can send their kids to school... Whereas if we could work with bigger parties to do this, it might be cheaper, but we don't know what the journey is of these spices.

Not only is this ingredient sourcing a moral choice; it’s a question of taste.

The flavour is also different because it's literally the best version of the products that we can have,” she said. “[…] Yes, it's a slow process, but for us it's worth [it].

Reclaiming Indonesia’s cultural heritage, one sip at a time

Another aspect of the startup’s work represents a reclaiming of Uspessij’s ancestral heritage. She spoke about the complexities of being a third-generation Moluccan in the Netherlands, which has a large Indonesian diaspora because of its colonial history.

Because my grandparents came to the Netherlands as a part of [that] history... they kind of live within the chains that they feel from their parents, and I think as a third generation, you can look at it differently,” she said.

For me, it's also now the opportunity that I have to keep this tradition alive, but to make it really accessible for a broad audience.

She sees Good Jamu’s functional beverages as a means by which to establish the tradition of jamu in the Netherlands.

© Good Jamu Giving Indonesian traditional medicine a modern makeover

The startup launched a carbonated drink earlier this year after a successful round of crowdfunding, representing another value that is integral to the brand, Uspessij said – community involvement.

She added: “The product is a vehicle for us to connect with our community.

Thinking global, acting local: Partner producers in the Netherlands

Good Jamu works with producers in the Netherlands to make its products, trying to “be as conscious about all the steps that we can take as possible”, says Uspessij. However, finding a partner with the knowledge to make the carbonated beverage proved challenging.

We really had to go on a search for the right partners to do this because a lot of the people were like, ‘Oh, you have 12 ingredients in there. That's not normal for us’ or ‘You work without any aromas – we've never done that’,” she said.

But Uspessij says she doesn’t want to make “any concessions” on the original product, its flavour, or its taste.

Even though sometimes it's harder, it's worth [it] to just try … and have the right partners to do this, or at least try together to figure it out,” she said.

Asked about the consumer response, Uspessij said it had been overwhelmingly positive.

When Indonesian people say that it tastes likes home, that's the biggest compliment that there is,” she said, adding: “For me, it's really a blessing that I get to do this.