There is much to learn from the nations of South-East Asia who have achieved per capita income levels 3x that of India’s WITHOUT Chinese-style authoritarian rule and WITHOUT letting their indigenous culture being eroded by mindless imitation of Western cultural practices. No country epitomises this more than Indonesia, a country where the morning radio broadcast in the island of Java starts with the chanting of the Gayatri mantra! This long read from the BBC highlights a specific aspect of how Indonesia is holding on to its rich culinary & dietary traditions without getting stuck in the past and without rushing to drink US$4 per serving café lattes:

“A herbal tincture that originated in Java’s royal courts more than 1,300 years ago is being given a new twist by young Indonesians.

In the streets of Central Java, women carefully load their bamboo baskets with bottles of jamu, a homemade elixir. Their hands are stained yellow from the turmeric that they have freshly ground to a pulp that morning with a pestle and mortar, along with other rhizomes, roots, fruits, bark and leaves to add to their tinctures. As the sun starts to rise, the jamu gendong (jamu sellers) make their way along their daily route by foot or by scooter, stopping only to serve one of their botanical infusions to a thirsty customer.

Some carry as many as eight bottles, each containing a bespoke jamu designed to give the customer a boost at any stage of life, from childhood to old age. They take care not to spill a drop as they pour the precious drink into a cup. For in Indonesians’ eyes, the bitter-tasting drink is not solely designed to quench your thirst, but jamu means a “prayer for health” in old Javanese.

Jamu is such an integral part of Indonesian culture that the country has nominated it for the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List. “At its most basic, jamu is a herbal medicine; at its fullest, it is a reflection of how a culture maintains wellbeing over thousands of generations,” said Metta Murdaya, author of Jamu Lifestyle: Indonesian Herbal Wellness Tradition.”

So where did Jamu – which sounds similar to the turmeric flavoured drinks that our grandmothers used to make for us in India – come from? “The drink has a rich and ancient history, originating during the times of the Mataram Kingdom (8th to 10th Centuries) more than 1,300 years ago. It was first drunk in the royal court, then was introduced to villages by healers. From there, the recipes were passed down by word of mouth through families.

According to anthropologist Patrick Vanhoebrouck, who has lived in Java for more than 20 years, references to the herbal tincture can be found in the bas-reliefs of Borobudur temple in Java. “Archaeological research on 9th-Century temples in Central Java show that jamu and herbal medicinal recipes were already administered to preserve health,” he said. Pestles and mortars, the tools of jamu making, have also been found in archaeological digs and date from the time of the Mataram Kingdom.

While the first recipes were found in records in the royal courts, fourth-generation jamu maker Vanessa Kalani said that jamu could predate them. “I believe that jamu goes back to a time when people lived in nature and took whatever they needed to heal from the forest, whether that was certain leaf or a flower,” she said….

Each jamu is believed to have different properties, whether to ease period pain or lower blood pressure. While many ingredients are purported to have their own health benefits – from turmeric to ease digestion or galangal to reduce muscle aches – jamu is seen as more of a preventative measure than a cure and the health-giving drink is viewed holistically, in that it treats body, mind and soul.”

As we watch coffee chains open up across India and sell cups of latte, mocha and espresso shots, it is fascinating to learn from the BBC how the Indonesians are adapting jamu to the current day: “When a report was published in 2015 saying that 49.5% of jamu makers were already 60 years old and only one-third of them had apprentices, there were concerns that the tradition might disappear. But a new generation of artisans and entrepreneurs are now embracing the ancient drink and giving it their own twist.

Jony Yuwono, owner of Acaraki, a jamu cafe in Jakarta, saw how popular coffee bars were becoming in the capital and was inspired to revive another bitter drink. He is now serving the 8th-Century tincture in barista-style surrounds. Jakarta’s Gen Z can be found ordering kunyit asam alongside golden lattes from the acaraki (the name for an herbal mixologist during the Majapahit empire). But rather than use a pestle and mortar like the jamu gendong, the acakari prepares each drink to order with the help of an electric coffee grinder, French press or V60 coffee dripper.”

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