Category Archives: Indonesian Jamu

Dump old spice and other tips for Indonesian cooking

After 500 years on the global #spice map, Jakarta is one gourmet -friendly city. This post is about how to make the spicy goodness of Indonesia work for you.  

Remember how you turned onto Indonesia? Was it about cooking? Food? Spices? Are we getting warmer?

Indonesian essential oils

Essential oil — Indonesia

We really are getting warmer, ’cause this Indonesian spice and herbal thing has begun to heat up. It used to be you could go for years in Indonesia without anyone making a big deal about spices. Because, after all, we’re talking about the Spice Islands where people demand savory food. But recently you see more restaurants catering to locals as well as expats that invoke the East Indies’ spicy history.  

After all, this is where even the poorest of the poor awake before dawn to spend hours grinding weeds and seeds into a savory base used to spark a flavorful paste to season a sauce which may just be one of the key ingredient of — shall we say — a dumpling . . .  to be elaborated over the course of hours or days, together with other exotic and disparate elements — some fresh, others not,  into a “simple” traditional Indonesian dish like siomay.

And not to miss the value added, in the take-away context, that’s going to come with three to five toppings and sauces, each individually-wrapped in leaves, plastic (and occasionally newsprint or recycled office paper). Depending on whether you ordered fish, fowl or neither, the toppings will range from dried onions and tiny chili peppers (eaten raw, as in Mexico) or shredded coconut, raw cane sugar, etc. Among the most common optional sauces you’ll to choose from a soy-based one, a peanut number, a spicy one — a million more but I forget them and can’t describe them at all in any language, but no reason to chose either, have them all, it’s included. And that’s how we make two-for-a-buck street food around here.

While the glut of fast food and convenience stores  that has accompanied the explosion of middle-class Indonesian consumerism over recent years will surely take its toll on the Indonesian palette sooner or later, for now I see peeps sticking fairly close to their culinary roots  and, I might add, bark, leaves, stalks and stems.

Yet buying spices in Jakarta is perhaps easier written about than done. Fact, is there’s a couple missing links in the supply chain. Women who grew up shopping at a traditional or village market (AKA wet market or pasar tradisional) and producers who used to sell there are now wandering around Carrefour, Ranch Market, and Hero looking for each other. But things are sorting themselves out fast and what I’ve seen over recent years mushrooming options and falling prices.Uh huh

Language and labeling is also a challenge.  Indonesian has many words for spice (rempa-rempabumbu, or hasil bumi) and yet for the most part cooking know-how is coded in regional languages like Sundanese, Javanese, etc. — not Indonesian. So sometimes it’s hard to hunt down spices that are actually here in Indonesia, let alone trying to substitute your way to French, Italian, Mexican or other gourmet greatness while based in Jakarta. It’s possible, but requires patience, as do special spice/herbal applications such as for diet, detox, jamu (traditional medicine), essential oils (minyak astriri), aromatherapy or other purposes.

Be as creative as possible because there’s a lot to (un)learn. Basically, the gist of it is to demand more from the Indonesian spice experience. Just think: if you can get the most essential oils at the mall in Melbourne and the sexiest of  shallots in San Fransisco, then it ought to be that much better here Jak, especially once you factor in prices. Right?

If you want to make this work, do yourself a favor and drop the “gingko is for grandpa” and “hops is for beer” riot upfront.  Hops is a brilliant sleep aid and, while the gingko research is ongoing, so far we know that it works for young and old men and women — at least for sex (get blood flowing several places).

It’s important to know the horticultural, historical background and cultural context for spices — like nutmeg and mace are the same species; black pepper and chili pepper aren’t related; and green/Bell peppers (which Indonesians, Dutch and others call paprika) and chili peppers are related.

And what about “old spice”? Just dump it. Ground nutmeg, ground black pepper, and whole cinnamon bark ,just to name a few, very frequently have funky stuff growing in or on them, or a funky smell, after just a few months of sitting in the spice rack in Jakarta. And sometimes the funky junk is already present when you purchase them at the store. I picked up some Mr. Boemboe dried basil that was infested with tiny beetles the other day and you can often see the little worm folk doing a Swiss cheese number on the nutmeg seeds while they’re still on the shelf at the supermarket.

Here’s some more Indonesian spice advice:

  • Start with the basics and focus on one spice/species (same root) at a time. As you might expect with kitchen science, it’s about building blocks and baby steps. So, learn as much as you can about varieties, sources, quality and uses of one plant.  Some of the most rewarding phytonutrients sources, mood changers and sex pals are roots, shoots, weeds and seeds you already know and love — coffee (biji kopi), tea (daun teh), ginger (jahe), tumeric family (kunyit), chili pepper (cabai), cinnamon (kayu manis), coriander (ketumbar), cloves (cengkeh) and pepper (biji lada) — sorry, for the short list.  That last one, BTW, is (indirectly) how we ended up with the piperizine family of chemicals, including everything from antidepressants to pepper spray weapons.
  •  Get some simple tools like the mashing stones, some mesh wire for drying things, a kitchen scale, etc. Now go buy some cinnamon sticks and make sure your outfit is robust enough to reduce them to a fine powder.
  • Re-task the maid from the ironing board to the kitchen to help with the unlearning process. Why not startw ith the bawang category (garlic and onions belong to this group), then move on to the non-pepper group which includes chili peppers (cabai), black pepper (lada) and green peppers (paprika). (See, even though in English the word pepper suggests a close relationship here, there really isn’t one.) Very soon you’ll remember from Anthropology 101 that food — especially spices — is entirely cultural. So, it’s really important not to say “as far as I know nutmeg is mostly for eggnog”;  or “yea, I think everyone knows that tumeric is good for you.” Ask instead, why the hell were people killing each other over nutmeg and what can tumeric do for you today.
  • Get in touch with your inner wet market. Sadly and despite a fairly solid traditional market lobby and even some well-intended regulations (which aren’t working), the traditional market may be on its last legs in Jakarta. And the situation is mirrored throughout Indonesia. (Yes, indeed — I’m talking about those horrendously freaky, leaky, smelly, dark concrete caverns where the maid buys veggies in the early a.m.)

But not to setres out, since something nearly as funky will surely take it’s place — just wait and see. If you’re near Block M, it’s already in place — that wet market has been relocated into a normal shophouse directly across from Blok M Square where it appears as a lovely “Asian produce” store. I suppose it’s resembles the original, more or less, except not as dark and cleaner and more user friendliness.

  • Jump-start your upstream spice knowledge by growing an herb garden. The only reason Jakarta isn’t a huge hippie magnet is I guess that people can’t imagine a Muslim hippie (actually yuppie, because you pay a pretty premium locally for seedlings, soil, fertilizer etc). But I can tell you what the Indo hippie /yuppie reads and it’s Trubus. Anyway, no need to read. Nothing could be easier than gardening in Jakarta. But have an Indonesian help you with it, if possible, to increase local relevance.
  • Reverse engineer a hot mug of jamu.  Jamu is Indonesian herbal medicine and it’s so universal you may never have heard of it if you live in Indonesia. But people overseas know about Indonesian spice and once they’re get hooked on classics like ginger coffee fortified with love herbs or cajuput oil  (little dab will do for aches and pains), hell with that revenue we may even be able to quit logging off the rainforests around here.
  • Find the local herbals section/shelf of your favorite Jakarta pharmacy (AKA apotik) to see for yourself how it all starts coming together. Yes, there is some risk in shelling out hard-won rupiah on an obscure botanical product from an unknown outfit in Central Java, but mostly just cash you’re gonna lose if it sucks. The  established cosmetic/spa/herbal makers (it’s a growth industry) lobby hard and the local press snoops pretty good on this one, to keep a good thing from going down the drain. There are exceptions, though. I would consume local/unknown essential oils a drop at a time only (build up gradually) and be very suspicious of whether or not cupid has figured out how to spike your pasak bumi (a relatively expensive natural aphrodisiac) with throw-away chemical sildenafil citrate (tell me if you need a ton, it’s also got some curious larger-than-life side effects ; )
  • Go for a little ethnic flavor. Remember, Indonesian is a catch-all, not an ethnicity. Tap centuries of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) wisdom in China town at bespoke, made-while-you-wait herbalist shops behind the electronics market (that spans both sides of the main drag) in Glodok.  Or to to Pasar Baru for a little Indian touch. As for other go-now brick-n-mortal fix, you’ve got tons and growing retail options for spice/herbal/spa products at the mall these days (including Botani at Gandaria City). The grocers and fruiteers are also stocking more exotic natural teas, etc. There are also a couple people who do small scale wholesale and you can email me.

  • Just keep clicking to learn and buy in large quantities.  For instance here, on Nature’s Herb Form, you’ll find just about as much grass & oil info you’d ever need (local analog here if you’re pretty sure you’ve got the next-gen Coca-Cola almost market ready, check Indonetwork, Agromaret or even Kaskus for a wholesale hookup.
  • Make it good, but not too good. Eggnog and beer are pretty good examples. Remember, as a patent medicine, Coke had non-secret ingredients cocaine and kola nut. Now only one of those is still legal and there’s pressure on the other. Then, during prohibition they had to quit putting alcohol in Coke. And now they’re forcing kids to drink it without caffeine some times. As always, however, it’s still flavored with nutmeg.
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Homemade spice dyer

House beer | Resident yeast lord shares mad brewing skills

Java’s Heart of Light & Darkness — Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn

History of JavaAs a young man, after the friction with his father drove Yunghuhn (1809-64) to try suicide — but before he went to medical school, joined the miliary and ended up in Java, he’d wander through Brunswick, Thuringia and especially the Harz mountains. At about the same time his first articles on mushrooms began to appear “out of the botanical twilight zone” (Mirror of the Indies, at 71)

Heart of Javanese Darkness“Many years later when [Junghuhn (which means “young hen”) ] returned to his old haunts he recognized only “the plants, shrubs, trees and geological formations [with] nary a word about people. He found Germans generally “a bunch of fat, arrogant and intolerant priests” (74) and surmised that “only in Holland had he encountered “such a bigoted lot of people. (Mirror 75)”

Old Java Looking at Ancient JavaIndologist Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 –1860) quotes Yunghuhn’s Images of Light and Shadow. He was a little over 20 years older than Yunghuhn.

Giant Ferns of Java

Four brothers — Night, Day, Dawn and Dusk — trip across Java telling tales. Junghuhn accounts for their experiences with some splendid descriptions of volcanic and other geological formations. Night is the orthodox Christian. Day is Junghuhn (deism tinged with pantheism) or “natural religion.” Dawn and Dusk atheists. (69) [Ed.: sounds like camping in Utah].
Losing my cool

“He often describes nature in terms of animal shapes or human emotions. A motionless volcanic lake can momentarily be stirred by such passions as to destroy overnight what it took years to grow, much the same way man will let his emotions destroy his own happiness. “Coming close to confession,” and though nature defies description, describe it he does — despite the fact he’s writing in a foreign language. “Indeed like someone who can suddenly cause a stone to spark, Junghun time and again manages to convey his sense of joy, elation, and relief while looking down from some “labyrinthine landscape” that looks “torn and gutted (Mirror 68).”

Pastoral Java (drawing)

“Compared to Junghuhn’s observations and descriptions of nature, all others pale. He goes well beyond noting, as Van Hoevell did, the ‘beauty and loveliness of the landscape,’ or ‘splendid, although rugged and wild, natural vistas.’ Junghuhn unfailingly prefers his landscapes rugged and wild, and majestic – majestic in her great silences and majestic in her forces; and alive too. (Mirror 68)”

Antique Java

Junghuhn relates that in Java he saw an immense field entirely covered with skeletons, and took it to be a battle-field. However, they were nothing but the skeletons of large turtles, five feet long, three feet broad, and of equal height. These turtles come this way from the sea, in order to lay their eggs, and are then seized by wild dogs (Canis rutilans); with their united strength, these dogs lay them on their backs, tear open their lower armour, the small scales of the belly, and devour them alive. But then a tiger often pounces on the dogs.(see Wright below)

Java, seine Gestalt, Pflanzendecke, und sein innerer Bau

The four volume treatise, Java, seine Gestalt, Pflanzendecke, und sein innerer Bau (Images of Light and Shadow from Java’s interior) was released anonymously between 1850 and 1854. The work was controversial, advocating socialism in the colonies and fiercely criticizing Christian and Islamic proselytization of the Javanese people.

Dr Seuss on Java

“The work was banned in Austria and parts of Germany for its “denigrations and vilifications of Christianity”, but was a strong seller in Holland where it was first published pseudonymously. It was also popular in colonial Indonesia, despite opposition from the Dutch Christian Church there. The publisher of the first volume, Jacobus Hazenberg, refused to continue his association with the work; the remaining four were published by the outspoken liberal, Frans Günst, from volume three as installments (from October 1, 1855) of the newly founded journal for freethinkers, De Dageraad (Dawn).” #wikipedia

Day trips from Jakarta

“Now all this misery is repeated thousands and thousands of times, year in year out. For this, then, are these turtles born. For what offence must they suffer this agony? What is the point of this whole scene of horror? The only answer is that the will-to-live thus objectifies itself. (Ecological Thoughts: Schopenhauer, JM Coetzee and Who We are in the World by Laurence Wright

Javanese femininity

Needless to say, our only response to such an enormous body of illumination, experience, and will to live is “Pak — itu jamur apa, pak? [Sir, but what type of mushrooms ?]”


Get meds in Jakarta 24/7 — pharmacy user’s guide

Viruses and their friends are happening all around us. Give them some credit for that, then ruthlessly purge.

Time is of the essence, friend. So here’s a top-9 list for longer life and better performance in the heart of Jakarta:

1. Consult an Indonesian pharmacist and then Google after prescription/ before purchase. It’s OK to ask pharmacist to break down Rx estimate per-item price. If you know the generic name, maybe you’ll get it. (Generics are new here and and pharmacies use that against you.)

2. Instead of buying everything the doc orders from him or her directly, try paying Rp 100,000 to 200,000 for the office visit and take then take the Rx to the pharmacy for further evaluation

3. Buy what you need, consume what you buy. In Indonesia, you don’t have to fill whole entire scrip — not even close

4. Call the pharmacy/apotik ahead of time. Pick a shopping area (of Jakarta) that has lots of pharmacies, like the Salemba medical complex near the University of Indonesia medical faculty. Note that Bali has very few hospitals and thus poor selection of meds.

5. Go to the pharmacy/apotek after midnight so you can get fixed up pelan-pelan (in an unhurried manner). Or, train the maid/ driver to fill prescriptions

6. Here’s is a list of 24 hour Jakarta pharmacies. In addition, almost any big hospital sells drugs 24 hours.

7. Here’s OK info about obtaining medications in Indonesia from

8.  Don’t overuse or under use antibiotics

9. Century delivers, Melawai has good service, Guardian doesn’t always ask for a prescription, Titimurni has the best selection (for Central Jakarta) and newcomer K-24 seems to be pretty good, too.  

Smoking hot Indonesian models — tobacco, spice and everything nice

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What do Indonesian women look like? This may be a legitimate field of inquiry for you, whether you’ll be living in Indonesia as an expat or attending mixed-race dinner parties in LA or DC.  On the other hand, you may have no legitimate interest in this type of thing. In which case may we recommend further reading about Indonesian Spice & Herbals.

But what hot Indo babes look like is certainly of interest to young Indonesian guys, 70% of whom begin smoking before they’re 19 [cite ]. And that’s presumably the reason for all the R&D that goes into Black’s smoking hot new cigarette flavors as well as their tight auto expositions that feature Indonesian models of all types. Black also controls a major banking group and Grand Indonesia, the mall of malls, just around the corner from the Sharehouse.

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January showers bring all kinds of fragrant Jakarta flowers

OK, year on year, today — 19 January — is possibly Jakarta’s nicest in terms of weather. Temperature right now (somewhere in Jakarta ) is 28 C / 82 F degrees.  But here at the Sharehouse it seems a bit cooler. Clear skies. Fullish moon. You can see buildings clear on the other side of town (if you’re up high enough or else peering down an old  Dutch canal).  You can even see stars, for that matter.

Sept 2010

It rains at night often fairly enough it seems. Then, with the sky tears all cleared up, the days are sunny and cool. It’s also apparently flower season. The bougainvillea is popping out everywhere. Always going at it and doing its thing is the indefatigable, totally over-the-top tropis-n-eksotis Cambodia trees (Plumeria). That’s what they’re called here. Don’t know in Cambodia. Otherwise they’re known as  frangipani. Every you’ll find a carpet (a rug anyway ; ) of fresh exquisite flowers under your tree. It’s somewhat seasonal but I notice varieties — like the yellow one across the street — which are almost always producing. There are several colors to chose from.

Cool URL for the photo I snagged from Google: It’s true that you can hardly kill Plumeria and in Bali they use it for living fences. But results do vary and they are subject to disease as well as simply growing but not flowering. The fearsome violent neighbors — also expats — from a large unnamed South Asian country near India whacked off all the branches they could reach of our backyard Cambodia tree  (itself an off-whack from a tree growing for some 20 years near Taman Suropati). So now we have over a half dozen trees in the front and back yards. (If you’re interested in the frangipani essential oil, please let us  know how much and we’ll see what we can do. )

Of course there’s no explaining why the neighbors did that; but it’s true jaded Indonesians have been know to refer to truly beautiful flowers as “trash” because of the way some species do tend to “litter” the ground. The Balinese and their deities, as you know, like those little Plumeria flowers.

In the front yard and up and down the streets of Menteng, at night, you can smell melati (Jasminum), an Indonesian national symbol. It rhymes with naughty but it’s sure nice. There’s another extremely fragrant bunga (flower) out there, but I’m not sure if it’s also jasmine or something else. Perhaps honeysuckle (Lonicera), which in Indonesian would be ranggis.

I’ll bring a a sample home and consult the one-eyed all-knowing Google Monster.

Price of chili peppers hottest Indonesian news. Spice gardeners keep their cool.

Indonesian hotties in the news

Cinta Laura Kiehl, Indonesian model becomes a singer


For some time Cinta Laura Kiehl, born 17 August 1993 in Quakenbruck, Germany, has been neck and neck with cabai rawit — the little green ones — for hottest Indonesian hottie. Her first CD– Cinta Laura –has gone double platinum in 5 weeks. It’s got to be finger-lickin’ good or else  Colonel Sanders wouldn’t be promoting it.

According to the Jakarta Globe, Indonesian agriculture minister Suswono has told Indonesians to “grow chili” in their back yards to offset the high prices of “spices” this year. What is meant is chili peppers, most of which which — including rawit,  jalepeños and cayennes but also bell peppers — belong are of the species Capsicum annum. (No relation to black pepper, a tropical vine.)

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