SoJamu Revives a Fading, Ancient Indonesian Drink

Resuscitating a piece of history and endangered plants through rich, herbal drinks

Throughout the islands of Indonesia, women carrying baskets of an herbal, rich, tonic-like drink called jamu travel on foot from household to household, region from region, selling their bottles until none remain. This is how it was a millennium ago, or at least how the story gets told. Now, the popularity of the brew has waned over the years but Jakarta-based company SoJamu seeks to revive the ancient drink whose origins date back to the 13th century. Using the traditional methods and ingredients, SoJamu carries the legacy of this bright and layered elixir into the future.

Nova Dewi founded SoJamu back in 2009 when she noticed the decline of the drink in popular Indonesian culture. “It’s a startup under the spirit of feeling the need to have the young generation of Indonesia know more about jamu,” she tells COOL HUNTING. “There’s a gap in knowledge because the story hasn’t been re-shared.” This gap, Dewi explains, is “due to the hit of the industrial era.” Jamu, which has always been made locally, traditionally and by hand, does not translate easily to machines.

This generation gap has been compounded by colonization, which spread the dogma that the West is best, an oppressive notion that can still be found lingering today. As the founder continues, “Indonesia has been colonized by many different countries due to the important commodities, herbs and spices that are well-planted and -harvested. So I think the mindset is everything from abroad is more cool.” Noticing how locally made goods were not as favored as American coffee or Korean products, Dewi felt called to revitalize the significance of the drink, especially now that it’s recognized as a historical product by Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture.

“I think [jamu] is something that’s going to be understood again and re-cherished and re-celebrated again, because people at that time were always trapped in the mindset that jamu is just jamu, a drink. But I think there’s so much more,” continues Dewi. As a tradition that is typically practiced and continued by women, jamu plays a large role in not only the ancient history of the islands but also the place of women within them.

The drink is all-natural, comprised (sometimes solely) of herbs, roots and spices. At the heart of the practice is wellness and wisdom. The potent and healthy brew is often consumed for anti-inflammation, increased immunity, better stamina and the ancient holistic health philosophy specific to Indonesia that it encapsulates.

“It’s actually about the ritual, healthy wishes, because the name ‘jamu’ comes from the ancient Javanese word ‘djampi’ and ‘oesodo.’ So ‘djampi’ is like ‘prayer’ and ‘oesodo’ means ‘health,'” explains Dewi. “This is how we share our health story and our wellness story, not only to Indonesia but to the world.”

SoJamu crafts various flavors of jamu—some more ginger-forward, lightly sweet or slightly spicy—but all are handmade and cold-pressed and are based on Dewi’s late grandmother’s recipe that’s slightly tweaked to target younger audiences. While each variation is already punchy, layered and complex, Dewi notes that many people mix them together, so much so that jamu mixologists have built a passionate community of their own.

When it comes to making jamu, Dewi utilizes a slow and gentle process which begins with pressing the juices out of the various roots and plants, a method not dissimilar to how almond milk is made through a cheesecloth. Manually, the juices are pressed out of the grated ingredients which are pushed and pulled in different directions by hand to squeeze out the liquids. Then they are sterilized, mixed and bottled, all of which happens in small batches and through natural, simple processes.

“Ingredients are sourced throughout the Indonesian islands, like nutmeg is from Banda Island and pepper from the west of Indonesia,” says Dewi. While many of these roots are familiar around the world, SoJamu utilizes specific cultivars and ingredients of a certain age, many of which are unique to the islands. “All of the ingredients are categorized by age. So the turmeric is not young turmeric that we use for cooking but the old part of the turmeric. We call it the mother… the mother roots.” The turmeric takes around nine months to cultivate, whereas ginger—which SoJamu uses the red, white and black species—takes around 15 months.

Dewi works with multi-generational farmers to source these roots while also helping coach them about re-cultivation. “We’re part of the ethnobotanical movement to plant what is now gone,” says the founder, noting how many of these herbs used to be used in jamu. “Actually, Indonesia has 30,000 species of medicinal plants and at the moment we only use around 1,700 of those plants. So we’re in the process of re-cultivating the plants that have been slowly disappearing.”

Since launching SoJamu in 2009, Dewi has noticed a change in attitude toward jamu with many more young people beginning to drink it again—but the work is far from over. “I’m supporting with the re-cultivation but once the product and the ingredients are sustained, then we can create a product that is based on my late grandmother’s notes on some recipes [with ingredients] that, at the moment, we do not have a lot of,” she says. Until then, Dewi will continue to empower Indonesians, crafting zesty tonics that bolster biodiversity and celebrate history.

Images courtesy of SoJamu