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Life

Traditional Indonesian herbal tonic meets modern-day barista

A drink made with turmeric, ginger and island spices catches on in Jakarta

A barista prepares an ancient elixir in a Jakarta cafe that is winning over some of the capital's health-conscious corporate warriors.

JAKARTA -- A traditional medicine once pushed to the brink of oblivion by its modern-day usurpers has been given a second life -- as a tonic for health-conscious Indonesians.

Jamu is a mixture of turmeric, ginger and a variety of spices found all over the sprawling archipelago. It is consumed as a beverage.

Jamu's resurgence has also given rise to at least one cafe that features the medicinal brew. It stands in an old section of northern Jakarta. Baristas at Acaraki Cafe prepare kunyit asam, made with turmeric and tamarind, and other types of jamu.

Acaraki Cafe sells its pick-me-ups for about $1.45 to $1.80. "I like the shop," a 22-year-old corporate employee said. "It's clean, and I can sip healthy drinks here."

The saloon, which does not tout any medicinal benefits of jamu, has become a popular spot in a city whose residents are taking more of an interest in their health.

Jamu's roots are unclear, but Javanese and Balinese have ascribed medicinal benefits to the concoction since ancient times. Some of the liquids are mixed with honey and are sweet. Others are bitter. It is used to treat a wide range of ailments, including flu, colds and digestive disorders.

The sight of women on bicycles hawking bottles of variously colored jamu is no longer as common as it once was. Many Indonesians, won over by prescription and over-the-counter drugs, gradually forgot about the herbal tonic.

In Indonesia, many foods are oily and sugary, and obesity has become a serious problem. The situation has convinced some Indonesians to improve their diet.

According to a survey conducted by major insurer AIA Group in 16 Asian countries and regions, 60% of those polled in Indonesia cited improving their appearance -- including by reducing their weight -- as a reason why they are eating healthier. The Indonesian tally was higher than that of any other of the economies polled. And if there is indeed a health-conscious zeitgeist in Indonesia, jamu is a part of it.

In the past, women followed traditional herbal recipes and brewed jamu in their homes. But that cottage industry has become more formal, and today there are companies devoted to the tonic, led by Industri Jamu dan Farmasi Sido Muncul, or Sido Muncul.

Sido Muncul has a factory in Semarang, Central Java. The company makes traditional medicines and health food products, among other items. It sells its products at home and exports them to the rest of Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

Sido Muncul listed its shares on the Indonesia Stock Exchange in 2013. In 2018, sales rose 7% from a year earlier to 2.7 trillion rupiah ($189 million).

President Joko Widodo's administration has been promoting the use of domestically made products, a policy that is likely to have aided jamu's resurgence.

The Widodo administration's not-so ulterior motive is to eliminate Indonesia's trade deficit with the rest of the world. To do that, he will need a hand from the archipelago's small and medium-size companies.

There is another factor at play in jamu's newfound popularity -- a willingness to give traditional Indonesian products a try.

The number of cafes and restaurants serving jamu is on the rise, especially in the capital. The boom is likely to continue for a while.

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