Kunyit Asam: The Roots of Love and Resilience
Prinka Saraswati, Gianyar, Bali
The menstrual cycle usually lasts between 27 and 30 days. During this time, the period itself would only go on for five to seven days. During the period, fatigue, mood swings, and cramps are the result of inflammation.
In traditional Javanese culture, this is the moment for women to rest and take care of themselves. During this moment, a woman would take Kunyit Asam, a jamu or herbal drink to soothe the inflammation. This elixir consists of turmeric and tamarind boiled together in a pot.
I still remember my first period - it was one day before graduation day in elementary school. I remember pedaling my bike feeling something warm running between my thighs. When I arrived home I did all I could to clean myself and then put on a menstrual pad. My mother came home from work about four hours later. I told her what had happened. She looked me in the eye and asked how I felt. I told her that it was painful, that my body was swollen in every place. Then she asked me to go with her to the backyard. I followed her to our little jungle, my mother sat down on the soil and smiled.
“See this slender leaf? This is the leaf of Kunyit, *empon-empon that leaves the yellow stain on your fingers. What’s most important is not the leaf, but the roots. You dig the soil and slowly grab the roots.”, my mother showed me how to pick Kunyit or Turmeric roots. Then we went to the kitchen where she boiled water along with some tamarind. While waiting for it to boil, she showed me how to wash and grate the orangey-yellow root. Then, we put the grated turmeric into the boiling tamarind water. “Tomorrow, you can make it for yourself. This will help you to feel better!”.
I remember the first time I tasted it - a slightly bitter taste but also sour. My mother always served it warm. She would also put some in a big bottle which I would place on my stomach or lower back for further relief. For days after, my mother’s hands and mine were yellow. My friends could always tell every time I got period because my hands would be yellow.
A year after my first period, I found out that you could get the bottled version in convenience stores. Still, I made my own Kunyit Asam every time I had my period because the one in the convenience stores was cold. It did not smell of wet soil and warm kitchen.
Fast forward, I am a 26 year old woman who casually makes this drink for friends when they have their periods. I’ve made some for my housemates and I’ve delivered some for friends who live in different towns. I do not grow turmeric roots in my garden, but I have grown and shared the love from my mom. What was once from garden to cup is now from *pasar to cup.
A couple of days ago, I asked my mother who taught her how to make the jamu.
“Who else? Yang Ti*! Your grandmother was not just a teacher”, said my mom. I was never close to my grandmother. She passed away when I was eight. All I knew from my mom was that she was a math teacher who had to teach courses after work. I had this image of my grandmother as a hard worker who was kind of distant with her children. My mom did not disagree with that but explained it came from her survival instinct as a mother. “She tried to make time. She tried. She taught me how to make jamu so I could take care of myself and my sisters”.
My mother is the second child out of seven, six of whom are girls. The reason my grandmother taught her is so that all of her children could take care of each other. While my mother was taught how to make the drink, my mother’s older sister was taught how to plant turmeric. Yang Ti knew which one loved the smell of soil more and which one loved the smell of the kitchen. My mother was the latter. She learned how to plant from my aunt, her older sister.
My grandfather worked in a bank but he got laid off when he was in his 40s. So, my grandmother had to do a side-hustle to support their children. My mother was in high school at that time when Yang Ti woke her and her older sister up at dawn. “Would you help me to pick some roots?”. Of course nobody said no. Especially if it was your mother, especially if you were born in Javanese culture where saying “no” sounded like a bad word. Together, the three of them went to the backyard, and they harvested empon - empon, rhizome, that was buried inside the soil. She grew many kinds of rhizome; temu lawak, temu putih, ginger, galangal, kunci, kencur, and kunyit. That was the day where my mother realized that her mother was never far away from her.
That was the day where she could spend more time with her mother. There, in the garden. There, in the kitchen.
“We’re sending these for Ibu Darti, the lady who lives across the river. Kunyit Asam for her and her daughters.”, said my grandmother to my mother and my aunt that day. They poured the Turmeric-Tamarind warm drink into a tall thermos and later my grandmother would deliver it on the way to school.
Over time, my grandmother got more orders for jamu. Everybody in the family helped her to make and deliver her jamu. The small business lasted only a few years, but that was what paid for my mother and her siblings’ education.
Today, my mother, who got laid off just a few days before I wrote this piece, harvested Turmeric and other roots. She’s making her Turmeric Tamarind drink from her kitchen.
My phone rang in the middle of this afternoon, a couple minutes after I boiled the rest of my grated turmeric. Today is one day after my period.
“Ingka, have you washed your pot after boiling those turmeric? It would forever be yellow if you don’t wash it right away!”
*empon-empon = roots like ginger, turmeric, etc. coming from the Javanese word “Empu” which means, something or someone that has deep knowledge.
*jamu = Indonesia’s traditional elixir made of roots, barks, flowers, seeds, leaves, and fruits.
*Yang Ti = Javanese term for grandmother, taken from the term “Eyang Putri” the female you look up to.
*pasar = the word for traditional market in Indonesian.
Karina Tungari, Hamburg, Germany (@_katung_)
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