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Behind the scenes: the gifted women that give us jamu

Who are jamu gendongs?

Jamu gendongs are the women that make and sell jamu. In the woven baskets that they carry around on their backs, they store liquid remedies for just about everything. These women usually travel the streets by foot, selling their jamu to those who approach them as they go, but in recent times they’ve also started selling their jamu by the speedier methods of bicycle and motorbike (like we do), allowing them to get their jamu to everyone who needs it!

Jamu gendongs produce their jamu themselves, whilst men lend a helping hand by sourcing the natural herbal ingredients that go into the mixtures. Jamu is made by juicing plants and grinding herbs, and all the ingredients are locally sourced. The forests of Java, for example, harbour many ingredients that are ideal – such as Javanese turmeric, ginger, galangal and cardamom – for the jamu gendongs of Java to use in the jamu creations that they sell across the region.

Making jamu requires skill, timing and precision. Jamu gendongs must pay close attention to the amount of each ingredient used, the temperature the ingredients are mixed at and the mashing and boiling times to ensure that the properties of the ingredients aren’t diminished and the potency of the mixture isn’t lost. They’re masters in the art of making that perfect batch.

Jamu gendongs have existed for hundreds of years – maybe even thousands! Jamu techniques and recipes have been passed down through generations of women, from grandmother to mother to daughter. Women have always been the protectors of jamu, keeping the tradition alive for the wellness of future generations.

One thing that makes jamu such a special product is that it’s an important – and often the only – income stream for a jamu gendong, which means that producing jamu increases their economic independence and reduces their reliance on their husband.

Why does making jamu matter?

Because of the importance that Indonesians attach to jamu as a healer, it plays a huge role in their daily lives. We usually go to a doctor or take some painkillers when we’re feeling a bit groggy, but in Indonesia many people will instead go in search of a jamu gendong to see if there’s an elixir in their basket that was made with their ailment in mind.

Throughout the decades, jamu has been used by Indonesians to treat a whole range of issues, from stress to sex problems! Jamu is even used for cosmetic purposes; a practice that was popularised by Javanese nobles, who used jamu in their skincare routines.

Jamu is held in such high esteem by Indonesians because it’s an integral part of their cultural heritage. Indonesian culture and beliefs have cemented jamu’s longevity. It has ancient roots, with archaeological evidence of relief carvings in the magnificent Borobudur temple of Java showing jamu was used in the Medang Kingdom during the 8th century.

Jamu has been kept alive in both writing and by word of mouth. Jamu recipes and the cultural significance of jamu have throughout the ages been documented in scripts on the dried-out leaves of lontar palm trees; during the colonial period the Surakarta palace developed many such scripts. But the secrets of jamu are also shared orally and through teaching – this tends to be the preferred way to disseminate jamu knowledge on the Madura Island.

Jamu has stood the test of time. It’s remained a key feature of Indonesia’s identity, despite modernisation, power shifts and cultural change. The elixir’s appeal continues to growing globally, as more and more people come to realise how wonderful jamu makes them feel!

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