Day 95: Who Do Jamu? Do You?

originally published April 4, 2012

It’s only a matter of time before we’re all hopped up on jamu.

My Indonesian fanbase (and according to the figures before me, you all constitute a whopping 0.37% of my adoring millions) will no doubt agree with this. Jamu is old-school medicine, once (and still) sold by the Indonesian equivalent of shamans and witch-doctors and road-side Nerve Tonic scam-artists.

It’s mainly an herbal medicine, cultivated from various roots, leaves, bark and fruit. It also may contain some tasty animal ingredients, like alligator or goat bile. I’ve never seen been around jamu in person, but already I don’t like the smell.

The jamu tradition dates back to around the 8th century, in a place called Java during the 300-year Mataram Kingdom, ruled by the mighty King Sanjaya.

Indigenous Indonesian physicians (or ‘Indigenesian Physicians’ as I like to call them) used to procure jamu and distribute it to patients as needed, but it was more often attained via the reliable method of finding a vendor on the street. These vendors – usually women – would sell the medicine in one of its many forms, most commonly mixed into a bitter drink that was slightly sweetened with honey. This still happens.

The recipe remains a mystery. Mostly because, like well-trafficked crack-cocaine, the recipe can vary from street corner to street corner. The idea is that the jamu recipes are not to be written down, but passed down through the generations like a recipe for really great cobbler. There were some early handbooks, including one that saw a lot of use in the last century, written in 1911 by a lady named Mrs. Kloppenburg-Versteegh. I’m not sure what her backstory was, but I’d like to picture her as a kindly older Jewish lady who fell in love with a strapping young Indonesian boy, then moved with him from Queens to Jakarta, abandoning her optometrist husband and three kids in order to live out her days in an Indonesian paradise. She regularly served up warm kugel and delicious mandel bread to the local villagers, along with her new in-laws’ recipe for a refreshing juma puree.

Apart from the more rural ‘Indigenesian Physicians’ I mentioned above, jamu was never really a staple of the Indonesian medical community. I get the sense it was treated like vitamin pills in the 1970s – not something to advise against necessarily, but the doctors didn’t have much faith that it was going to work miracles.

If you’re already sold on jamu as a must-have for your medicine cabinet (and I haven’t even gotten into what it cures yet, so slow the hell down), but you refuse to buy so much as a Churro, let alone medicine, from a street vendor, you can always track down a jamu shop. They’ll prepare the stuff on-site for you. Or, if you feel more comfortable snarfing back a mass-produced capsule by a pharmaceutical company (because they would never steer you wrong!), you can find those also. Jamu is sold in pre-made drinks, packets for making tea, tablets, capsules, caplets, tabsules, window-pane, spoon-ready rock form, or painted on the back of a local lizard, ready for a good lick.

There have been quality controversies – and again, I hate to bring back the comparison with street crack, but it’s just so apt – in the products sold on the street as well as with mass-made jamu. The only way to know if your stuff is ‘pure’ is, I suppose, to find yourself a good connection.

There are medical reasons to take jamu, and numerous varieties available, depending on what ails you. Grab some Jamu Kunir Asam to facilitate your menstruation (I do). Have a fever? Pop back a hit of Jamu Cabe Puyang. Jamu Pahitan appears to be the most wondrous breed of the jamu clan, claiming to heal you of itching, diabetes, lack of appetite, rotten body odor, high cholesterol, abdominal bloating, acne, and dizziness. If that’s the list of what it cures, I can only imagine the lengthy list of possible side effects in the commercial’s voice-over. I bet “fiery rectal rainbows” makes the list.

There’s a jamu for warming the body and a jamu for cooling the body. There’s probably a jamu for when your body is the exact right temperature, and you’d like to keep it that way. Jamu Kunci Suruh offers to cure a fungal infection, shrink your uterus and stomach, strengthen your teeth, and probably bring out the original luster of your vehicle’s exterior. Also, there’s the matter of your vagina.

The sub-market for jamu – no doubt ballooning in size in our Cialis/Viagra/whatever-the-hell-Ron-Jeremy-is-trying-to-sell-me-in-a-pop-up-ad world, is jamu for the use of sexual enhancement. For men, the right blend of jamu can allegedly increase sexual stamina. I don’t know how many Indonesian men are willing to take a hearty swig of crocodile bile in order to extend their coitus from seven minutes to a whopping nine, but I’d bet there’s a market.

For the ladies – oh you know, those roving jamu vendors have a little something for you. There are varieties of jamu specifically brewed to snug-ify your nether-parts. These include – and I swear, I am not making these products, nor their translations up – Sari Rapat (“Essence of Tightness”), Rapat Wangi (“Tight And Fragrant”) and Empot Ayam (“Tight As A Chicken’s Anus”).

I’d like to know more about the lab tests that came to verify that particular claim.

If any of the above remedies has you excited (and who wouldn’t be excited by a chicken’s anus? Anyone?), but you don’t feel like jetting off to Jakarta quite yet, you can stop by and use your Paypal account to get some of this stuff shipped around the world to you. It’s a great way to expand your repertoire of herbal self-medication, and probably a fantastic way to meet your local customs officers in person.

Some of the racier items offered at include “Lady Wandee Vagina Tightening And Scenting Pills”, “Ayudara Breast Optimizing Cream” (every guy loves well-optimized breasts), “Leech Fat For Penis Enlargement”, “Alodeam Nipple Lightening Set” and “Aries Sexy Underarm Whitener” (which is probably just repackaged Coffeemate).

The descriptions for these products are detailed and worth a read, if only to marvel at what people will pay money for. Oh, in case you were a little excited before, that’s “Alodeam Nipple Lightening Set” – it will not enable you to shoot lightning bolts from your nipples.

Although I’m sure there’s a jamu recipe for that somewhere.

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