Feeding The Nation

Jamu Remedy

Will Goldfarb, the very modern pastry chef and owner of Room4Dessert in Bali, explores the versatile Indonesian herbal medicine, traditional jamu, and how its healing powers can be modernised and included in today’s culinary conversation.

Words by Will Goldfarb

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One of the most interesting things about living and working in Indonesia is exploring the incredibly rich world of flavours, ingredients and beliefs. The traditional medicine, jamu, is a place where these three things meet.

Jamu is a predominately herbal medicine made with plants, roots, bark, flowers, fruits, honey, royal jelly, milk and other natural ingredients.

There is a jamu for almost anything that ails you, from acne to body odour to a range of more intimate problems. Instead of seeking it out, often the jamu comes to you via a mbok jamu, a woman carrying a basket filled with a range of home-made remedies. You’ll often find that each vendor has her own mix as jamu recipes vary by region (and available ingredients) and are often not written down.

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Now jamu can be found in pre-made powdered form (just add water!) and a variety of pills and tablets for instant health, but what I’m fascinated by is the real thing made with fresh ingredients – how it can change depending on the maker and the location, and its range of natural health properties.

My team and I are constantly seeking the new in the form of grains, herbs, spices and flavours to take our desserts to the next level, but we keep returning to the historical lure of jamu and the traditional art of healing.

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As with nearly every history based on oral traditions, there are several possible origins of this magical stuff. Two words (djampi and oesodo) were smashed together to create the concept of healing through medicine, prayer and magic. The roots of jamu are heavily influenced by Indian Ayurvedic principles but feature ingredients found in Indonesia. Jamu was very popular in Java, particularly the royal court in Yogyakarta, and was said to be the secret of the famed beauty of the Javanese princesses and court ladies. But its reach wasn’t just limited to that island, as jamu can be found across the archipelago.

It is known in Bali as loloh; you may have noticed these magic potions available at roadside stands, healthy food and wellness retreats, or at your local hotel breakfast buffet. Its history in Bali likely stems from the Majapahit tradition, dating back several centuries. Although commercialised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the tradition is definitely not dying out. In fact, recent studies and a cultural shift to more natural medicines are shining new light onto the true health benefits of these traditional herbal recipes.

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There are so many different types of jamu out there, but at Room4Dessert, we’re guided by the seminal work of Robin Lim, founder of Yayasan Bumi Sehat, and her apotek hidup, or ‘living pharmacy’. When we create with jamu as an inspiration, we’re not only thinking about the individual ingredients as flavours but as a ‘living pharmacy’ and the extra properties they bring, and how that can translate to a unique dining experience as well as a little lesson about Indonesian culture and history on a plate.

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Will Goldfarb

Will Goldfarb is the founder of Room4Dessert in Ubud and has an international reputation for mastery and innovation with stints in award-winning kitchens such as elBulli, Cibreo and Tetsuya. Will has been nominated for the James Beard Award and was named one of Pastry Art & Design’s ‘10 Best Pastry Chefs in America’.