Who are jamu gendongs?
Jamu gendongs are the women who create and sell jamu, a traditional Indonesian herbal medicine. They carry woven baskets on their backs, which contain various drinks that cater to a wide range of needs. These dedicated women usually travel on foot and sell their jamu to those who approach them. However, in recent times, they have also begun to use bicycles and motorcycles as faster and more efficient means of delivering their jamu to anyone in need!
Jamu gendongs produce their jamu themselves, while men lend a helping hand by using the natural herbal ingredients found in the blends. Jamu is made by pressing plants and grinding spices, and all ingredients are sourced locally. For example, the forests of Java are home to 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 they sell in the region.
Making jamu requires skill, timing and precision. Jamu gendongs must pay close attention to the amount of each ingredient used, the temperature at which the ingredients are mixed, and crushing and cooking times to ensure that the properties of the ingredients are not diminished and the potency of the mixture is not lost. They are masters of making the perfect batch.
Jamu gendongs have been around 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 and have kept the drink alive for future generations to enjoy.
One thing that makes jamu such a special product is that it is an important – and often the only – source of income for a jamu gendong, meaning that producing jamu increases their economic independence and decreases their dependence on their husbands.
Why is making jamu important?
Due to the importance Indonesians place on jamu as a healer, it plays a major role in their daily lives. We usually go to a doctor or take some painkillers when we feel a little groggy, but in Indonesia many people look for a jamu gendong to see if there is an elixir in their basket made with their ailment in mind.
Over the decades, jamu has been used by Indonesians to treat a whole range of problems, from stress to sex problems! Jamu is even used for cosmetic purposes; a practice popularized by Javanese nobles, who used jamu in their skin care routines.
Jamu is so valued by Indonesians because it is an integral part of their cultural heritage. Indonesian culture and beliefs have cemented the longevity of jamu. It has ancient roots, with archaeological evidence of relief carvings at Java's magnificent Borobudur Temple showing that jamu was used in the 8th century in the Medang Kingdom.
Jamu has been kept alive both in writing and orally. Jamu recipes and the cultural significance of jamu have been documented over the centuries in scripts on the dried leaves of lontar palm trees; during the colonial period, Surakarta Palace developed many such scripts. But the secrets of jamu are also shared orally and through teaching – this is usually the preferred way of spreading jamu knowledge in Madura Island.
Jamu has stood the test of time. It has remained an important feature of Indonesian identity, despite modernization, power changes and cultural changes. The elixir's appeal continues to grow worldwide, as more and more people realize how amazing jamu makes them feel!