Jakarta's hip herbal medicine scene

Jakarta's hip herbal medicine scene

JAKARTA - Modern metropolitan life in Jakarta may involve imbibing fancy cocktails and coffee, but apparently drinking jamu, traditional herbal medicine, still has a place in the capital's urban scene.

At a glance, the high seats and long wooden L-shaped bar at Bukti Mentjos at Jl. Salemba Tengah No. 48 in Central Jakarta looks like a traditional cafe. But instead of cappuccinos or Bloody Marys, visitors will find galian singset, batuk nyesek, pegellinu kuat and other types of jamu on the menu.

Galian singset has a slimming effect for women. Batuk sesak treats cough and asthma, while pegellinu is for people who suffer from exhaustion, rheumatism and gout.

"I came here because I had been repeatedly suffering from mouth ulcers and stomachaches for the past few weeks. I prefer drinking jamu to visiting medical doctors," said Letty Susanti, a customer at Bukti Mentjos.

Her order came in the form of two small glass cups. The first one contained a hot thick muddy mixture, while the second was hot, sweet and gingery. Letty stirred her jamu and waited until it cooled enough to drink.

"Real jamu tastes a bit bitter, but I don't mind. My technique is to drink it fast," she said. The Kuningan, South Jakarta resident said she learned about the jamu shop when she lived in Salemba two years ago and has been a regular customer ever since.

The jamu shop at Bukti Mentjos is open from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on weekdays and fills up in the evening with office workers, families with their children and even young people.

There are 50 types of jamu on the menu.

Darsun, a man in his early 30s, said he regularly drinks jamu after exercising at a nearby gym.

"I usually order jamu Number 15 Satria and ginseng. I want to remain healthier especially since I quit smoking two years ago," he said.

He said he used to visit a small shop selling jamu and honey for only Rp 6,000 (S$0.65) a shot, but stopped going after learning that the vendor used fake honey to keep the price low.

One portion of jamu at Bukti Mentjos costs around Rp 17,000, depending on whether additives such as egg yolk are included.

Horatus Romuli, the third generation owner of Bukti Mentjos, said his family had been ordering various rhizomes to make jamu from an old time supplier in Surakarta, Central Java, for more than 50 years.

"The supplier knows well our quality standard because we have been doing business since the time of our grandfathers. Every area in Indonesia has its own jamu recipes. Here, we use Central Java jamu," he said over the phone.

Romuli, as he is usually called, said his jamu shop relied on the mutual trust shared by his customers and word of mouth. He said the biggest challenge to running a jamu business was the presence of jamu laced with chemical drugs, which could pose dangers to the health of customers.

"Real jamu has to be completely natural and the ingredients should be the ones that have been passed down from generation to generation. Not all herbal medicine can be used for jamu," he said.

While Bukti Mentjos offers authentic jamu, customers who want to enjoy a more chic ambiance may want to visit Suwe Ora Jamu in Kebayoran Lama, South Jakarta. The newly opened cafe offers two kinds of jamu - fresh beverages using jamu ingredients and authentic instant powder jamu from PT Jamu Iboe in Surabaya.

One of the beverages on the menu was called Green Tamarind, which blended mustard greens with turmeric and tamarind. Although the use of the mustard greens may sound uninviting, the resulting green-coloured beverage was delicious and soothing.

Hilman Taufik, one of the employees, said most of the visitors to the cafe were young people who liked to hang out. The first floor of the small cafe is a non-smoking area, while on the third floor, a nice open terrace that has good air circulation, smoking is permitted. The second floor has a small playground with a mattress dedicated for children of the customers.

"We can serve around 200 customers on weekends. Our regular customers are members of car and art communities and surrounding office workers who like to hold meetings here," Hilman said, adding that Suwe Ora Jamu is open everyday from 4 p.m. to midnight.

The centuries-old jamu remedies are common in many parts of the country. They are usually used to treat light ailments such as colds, fatigue and lack of appetite. The Health Ministry's own basic health research shows that 59 per cent of Indonesians above the age of 15 have consumed jamu, 95 per cent of whom reported feeling benefited from the drinks.

Most jamu, however, has not been clinically proven.

In 2008, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared jamu to be the hallmark of Indonesian herbal medicine. Two years later, the Health Ministry prepared a nationwide research project to officially recognise jamu. The National Commission for Scientific Research on Herbal Drinks at the ministry is working on formulas to fight diabetes, high cholesterol, gout and hypertension.

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