Jamu is a kind of traditional Indonesian medicine supposedly made from all-natural ingredients. It comes in a ready-mix powder, and you can find the stuff in little packets everywhere, all designed to treat a variety of ailments ranging from diabetes to impotence. It also reportedly does things that have nothing to do with treating ailments, like vagina tightening.
Jamu is said to date back some 1,300 years, which is why there are bas-reliefs of jamu drinking scenes carved into the walls of Borobudur Temple from the 8th century. A few decades ago jamu was seen as hopelessly old-fashioned, but now it’s experiencing something of a revival in part due to the current Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, who apparently drinks a glass every morning and has done so for the past 17 years.
I don’t really get jamu, but I figure it must be popular for a reason. There are enough shops peddling the stuff to suggest it does something, so I decide to trial a few different varieties and see for myself. And of course, I start with the strangest one.
Sari Rapet: The Vagina Tightener
Yes, I’m going to try a medicine that supposedly shrinks vaginas, and will therefore enhance sexual pleasure. Because surely this is every woman’s dream, right? And yes, there are some wanky misogynistic overtones about all this but I decide not to think about it.
I start by visiting a doctor, just to get his thoughts. Dr. Aznan Lelo, is a professor of pharmacology at the University of North Sumatra and all-round expert on jamu. When I meet him, Dr. Aznan highlights the subtle difference between jamu and other kinds of herbalist concoctions. He explains that traditional jamu recipes are handed down from generation to generation, whereas most other herbal medicines lack the charm of historical lineage.
On that basis, I hate to lower the tone, but I ask him whether jamu can indeed constrict women’s vaginas.
“Well, whether it works or not scientifically isn’t really the point. Women buy vagina-tightening jamu because they think it works.”
A placebo effect for your vagina then. This doesn’t fill me with confidence.
To get started I visit a rather swanky jamu shop in Medan, North Sumatra, which is close to my house in case anything goes wrong and my vagina spontaneously combusts. There I drink the foul concoction, which somehow manages to be sour, herbal, and bitter all at the same time.
The only way to test if jamu works is to have sex and see what happens. So that’s what I do, to discover it’s had no effect. I imagined my vagina would now have taken on a life of its own and that my husband would struggle to escape its vice-like grip. But not so.
“Maybe you need to drink it over a long period of time,” he ponders aloud.
I tell him the stuff is disgusting and that won’t be possible.
Pegal Linu: The Muscle Soother
I go back to the shop and ask the shopkeeper, Eka, what their most popular kind of jamu is and she tells me it’s Pegal Linu which soothes aches and pains. Eka mixes the jamu powder and presents it to me with a glass of hot water close by, presumably to take the edge off. If I were being charitable I’d say it tastes like a cinnamon latte if the top accidentally came off the cinnamon. It’s so heavily spiced that it’s tough to swallow.
Almost as soon as I drink it my heart starts racing and I vibrate home. I’ve never taken speed but I imagine this is what it feels like. I suspect this has something to do with the six ginseng pills I was directed to pound back at the end of the ordeal. Do my muscles still hurt? I‘m so jacked on jamu that I have no idea.
This brings me back to Dr. Aznan, who points out that jamu is not to be messed with. In recent years unscrupulous jamu producers have been mixing jamu with other things like steroids to give them a bit of a kick. Dr. Aznan also mentions a kind of jamu that is meant to make men more virile but which many producers just mix with crushed Viagra to make it seem like it actually works.
I also ask Dr. Aznan if it’s true jamu can help you to feel less tired and he blinks wearily,
“If you’re tired, why don’t you go to sleep?”
Quite. So far all his answers point to the fact that jamu doesn’t do much at all.
Rapet Wangi: The Sweat Sweetener
Allegedly this makes women’s sweat smell sweeter. As I’m British and Indonesia is a tropical country, I spend most of my time looking like I’ve been boiled, so this seems like it could be useful.
I need an even spread of jamu shops as part of this experiment so l try a smaller and more rustic establishment run by a man named Udin who is a jamu enthusiast. Udin has owned this shop since 2006 and I ask him if jamu is a good business to get into.
“It’s not a good business, it’s a great business” he beams.
Udin tells me he makes good coin flogging jamu, which I find amazing as he sells me a glass for IDR 3,000 (A$0.28). He must sell a lot of it.
I thought sweat sweetening jamu would be a good idea. It isn’t. The previous jamu was bitter but manageable. This jamu is like drinking liquid compost. To make matters worse, it makes me start sweating profusely almost immediately. Is that the point? Maybe it’s supposed to make me sweat so much that people around me become immune to it.
At Udin’s jamu shop I meet a patron called Fandi (34) who swears by jamu. He has been drinking it all his life and likes it because it’s ‘all natural’ and makes him feel ‘fresh’. I’m certainly not feeling that fresh myself but everyone assures me it’s because I’m just not used to it yet.
Sehat Badan: The Pick Me Up
An even more traditional approach is in order so I try a small jamu stall by the side of the road owned by Yanti. She puts everything in a glass then gets to work with some egg beaters. She’s really giving it some welly.
It arrives and looks like manure. There are even little bits of what look like straw floating on the surface. God, it’s bitter. Thoughtfully she has prepared a small shot glass as a chaser which has warm ginger in it mixed with honey. I want ten more of these and hold the jamu. The ginger is delicious and reminds me of a hot toddy.
As soon as I leave I feel like there’s an alien inside my stomach fighting to get out. I start burping loudly which is, according my delighted Indonesian friends, a sign that wind trapped inside me (called “masuk angin”) is coming out.
I spend all night feeling like a walking whoopee cushion. Do I feel better the next day? Yes, but mostly because I’ve finally stopped expelling gas.
So did any of the jamu have any effect?
Well, I can say with confidence that every glass of jamu I drank produced some sort of short-term reaction, be it sweating, palpitations, or just an extreme sense of nausea. On that basis it seems that the herbs and other ingredients in jamu definitely have some kind of effect on the body. But just not necessarily the right ones, as it definitely didn’t aromatise my sweat or give me a daintier vagina.
Perhaps the key to jamu is just believing. And maybe that’s enough for all the people who buy and drink it regularly, including the president himself.
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