I’M ABOUT TO share a secret with you. It is the secret to my timeless beauty, the magic potion that I use to maintain the temple that is my body and the glistening moon that is my face. And considering what I write about in this column week after week, it should not surprise you that this elixir I speak of is a drink.
Jamu is a traditional — I would even say ancient — medicinal elixir from Indonesia, widely consumed in both Java and Bali (where half of me is from). Every Balinese lady I knew growing up had her own favorite version of this bright yellow drink, sipped every few days, or more frequently during their bulan datang (literally, “coming of the moon” or, as Americans call it, their period), and no trip to a spa in Indonesia is complete without a glass of jamu to swig before you lie down and have all your dead skin cells scraped off with a lulur scrub made of sandalwood and turmeric. Formulations vary widely, but jamu is almost always made with a base of turmeric and ginger juice, a bit of citrus and some kind of sweetener.
From there, practically any of the herby, planty, spicy ingredients you find in Indonesian food can be added, like tamarind, galangal (a thick, gingerlike rhizome with a distinct peppery taste), pandan juice, herbs, roots, fruit, vegetables and even sometimes animal bits; the ingredient list can read like something out of “The Malleus Maleficarum” if the jamu lady you’re buying from happens to market hers as more of a cure-all than a tonic.
The purveyors of jamu are traditionally women walking around with their cloudy home-brews in big glass bottles in baskets on their heads (you do not buy the bottle; they pour it into a cup for you), but you also can buy powdered jamu packets in drugstores, and, of course, there are fancy versions now, probably artisanal, and definitely more expensive (but no more effective) than the drinks those ladies are selling.
Now gentlemen, there is nothing about jamu that precludes you from drinking them — anyone can benefit from a little vigorous anti-inflammation. But to me, jamu was always presented as something essential to women, a beauty product and invigorant, the ingredients of which would keep my skin dewy, my hair glossy and my female anatomy healthy and free of what the Victorians would have called “women’s problems.”
Some purveyors of jamu happily will tell you they have a brew that can take care of any problems you have, including skin issues, weight issues, menstrual cramps and even colds. And to be fair, a hefty dose of fresh turmeric and ginger root, anti-inflammatories both, should not hurt you, although I am not prepared to claim more than that in print without a double-blind study and a reasonable sample size.
Depending on the ingredients, jamu can taste rather like medicine, but they don’t have to be unpleasant, and they’re a snap to make at home: A basic (and delicious) jamu can be made with roughly ½ cup grated turmeric (get the fresh root if possible), ½ cup grated ginger (ditto), lemon juice from at least one lemon (or two limes), about three cups water and sweetener to taste. Honey is fine or, if you want a real Indonesian tang, use the funky dark Javanese coconut sugar called gula jawa (available at many Asian markets and, failing that, Amazon) or even the Trader Joe’s coconut sugar, which I have found a passable substitute for gula jawa in a pinch.
Give everything a whiz in a blender, and then pour it into a pot and simmer (some say boil; I do not, but then, my tap water is readily potable) for about 20 minutes. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve. Your jamu can be sipped hot or cold (I prefer cold, but if I had a cold, I would drink it warm, in a mug). That’s it, and if sipped frequently (at least once a week, sometimes more), I can guarantee you a lifetime of radiant health and ageless beauty — or, at least, the blissful glow you get from doing something slightly virtuous. Plus, it’s way cheaper than La Mer.