I’m sitting in a beyond typical Balinese Spa in Legian, Bali. Down an alley, up some steps, dimly lit, and couldn’t be larger than 12m squared. 3 massage beds, 2 waiting chairs, and a small wooden table carrying a pile of magazines from 2010 with just enough space on it for a bottle of water comprise this cute little salon. Oh, and a mini fridge sits in the corner.
What do they need a fridge for?
I was referred here by a friend. Multiple friends in fact. Each one of them individually swearing by the unbelievably powerful sports massage where, for 60,000 RP, the owner Kadek and her husband use hot stones and organic coarse salt to ease muscle stiffness and increase circulation in between brutal deep tissue sessions. A story for another time.
As I await my turn at self-inflicted torture, the front door which sits about a meter from my seat, abruptly swings open suddenly inviting the hum of traffic from the street beyond. A woman now standing half in and half-out with sweat beads trickling down her rosy face appears out of breath and semi-frantic.
She loud-whispers “I’m gonna miss my flight! Kadek??? I need the Jamu please!” Kadek’s husband enters our space from behind the curtain smiling at her with his eyes, and goes straight for the mini fridge pulling out four large plastic once-upon-a-time water bottles filled with a thick yellow liquid that leaves residue on the side of the bottle as it swishes back and forth. Rushed woman breathes a sigh of relief as she places the bottles in her oversized handbag and looks me dead in the eye “This stuff helped cure me of cancer.”
“I carry some back home with me every time.”
Is that even allowed? Let’s not go there.
I sit there stunned, not entirely certain of what just happened. I’m sure she said some sort of goodbye to the owners but all I could think of was googling.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were a magical health tonic with the capability of treating and curing almost every ailment known to man? Well, apparently there is.
It’s called Jamu.
Legend has it that Jamu originated some 1300 years ago in the Mataram Kingdom of Java, initially heavily influenced by Ayurveda from India, practiced for over 4,000 years, cooked up with strong Indonesian elements to create the Jamu known today.
Jamu was initially adapted sometime in between the 8th to 10th century by the Javanese Dukun (Indonesian word for Shaman) who took on multiple mystical societal roles:
· As traditional healers; cooking and grinding up treatments to a number of maladies within their communities.
· As spirit mediums; providing the wisdom of ancestors from beyond to be sacredly practiced and passed down to everyday villagers.
· And sometimes even the role of sorcerers; allegedly practicing witchcraft and black magic.
This fills my imagination with wild visions of a bearded and hooded elder imprinted in deep wrinkles, each crease holding its own story filled with knowledge and wisdom. Bowed over a smoking cauldron, he chucks in recently ground herbs and spices, crackling and fizzing upon their contact with this magical potion. The king impatiently, yet respectfully checking into the Dukun’s chambers multiple times per day awaiting his chance at health, strength, and longevity.
Following my agonizing yet euphoric release of a massage, I begin asking around almost obsessively. Any and every Indonesian I know (and don’t) is now being hounded with questions from what ingredients are used to what benefits Jamu offers.
Although every tribe creates a slightly different version of Jamu, the main ingredient is unquestionably turmeric, a member of the ginger family unique for its chemical compound Curcumin; the source behind turmeric’s bright yellow hue.
Recent studies have made Turmeric popular for its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and neurotrophic properties known for treating and preventing a number of ailments including but not limited to:
· Tames heartburn and an upset stomach.
· Lowers cholesterol warding off heart attack and stroke.
· Delays diabetes.
· Protects the brain from Alzheimer’s.
· Curbs joint pain.
· Relieves menstrual and muscle cramps.
· Relieves hangovers.
Recent studies show that turmeric even prevents fear from being stored in the Brain and may be a very effective anti-depressant with mild mood enhancing capabilities.
Although still in very early stages, studies have shown promising effects of Curcumin in the fight against cancer. Huffington Post recently published an article stating that Curcumin "interferes with several important molecular pathways involved in cancer development, growth and spread," according to the American Cancer Society even killing cancer cells in the lab setting and shrinking tumors and boosting the effects of chemotherapy in animals.
Distributed in the form of powder, pills, and capsules, Jamu is most often served as a cold beverage generally containing its main ingredient turmeric with the addition of tamarind, ginger, lime juice, honey or palm sugar, milk, and eggs. The Dukun in ancient times even adding fabled ingredients such as goat’s bile and eye of newt (just kidding… about the newt’s eye).
Nowadays mass manufactured and exported, Jamu can still be found being sold on the streets by Mbok Jamu (women selling Jamu) either by carrying a large basket of it on their heads,, strapped to their backs, or riding a bicycle with it sitting on the seat behind them.
Some locals even swear that Jamu helps to increase sexual stamina for men, and to tighten “Miss V” as they call it, in women. Ratus, known as “the secret of the Java princess” is made up of a powdered Jamu together with a combination of ylang, sandalwood, and various mixed herbs. Popular with women today as a pre-bridal treatment, it involves the smoking (or fogging) of Miss V by sitting over a hollow stool while the Ratus burns underneath on a bed of hot coals. This treatment is said to have powerful anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties, as well as tighten and improve vitality, reduce stress, regulate cycles, and aid with infertility.
Although some practices and treatments may be considered more mystical than others, the health benefits of Jamu are impossible to deny. Modern medicine is only just beginning to catch up to what Shaman have known for millennia. Who am I to question more than 4,000 years of practice? Rushed woman in the spa has no idea the quest for knowledge she sparked. One thing is for certain; I will henceforth ensure that there is a bottle of Jamu waiting in my fridge ready to be consumed.
Wanderer. Healer. Chef. Writer. Lover. Admirer of all things magical.