Rubbish to Gems : A Tale of Javanese Tea Wedang Uwuh

While driving around the Indonesian countryside, especially in Sulawesi and Java, you see sheets of tarp spread along the side of the road with cloves or scrolls of cassia drying in the hot sun. The archipelago produces most of the world’s nutmeg and clove, spices over which wars were fought and nations colonized. Most of the produce drying on the plastic sheets is intended for export; the higher the quality the better the price farmers would fetch. Yet, no part of a spice tree is wasted, be it cassia, nutmeg or clove. Javanese tea, wedang uwuh, is an example of this philosophy.

Uwuh means rubbish in Javanese, and the tea uses all of the refuse from the spice production–nutmeg leaves, clove branches, cassia foliage and stems. (Another theory is that the tea is so called because the bits and ends floating in the liquid look like garbage.) Either way, garbage it is not, and one legend credits the Raja of Mataram with the discovery of wedang uwuh.

While they don’t have the intense scent of the fruit, the stems and leaves of all spice trees are packed with aromatics and nutrients. Clove leaves, for instance, have a beautiful floral-green accent and anti-bacterial properties. Cassia leaves (also used in Indian cuisine as tej patta) have a peppery bite and a warming effect. For this reason, wedang uwuh is a popular beverage in Java, particularly in the city of Yogyakarta–it is known for its rejuvenating benefits.

The taste is complex and layered, with the peppery sweetness meeting citrusy warmth. The color of wedang uwuh comes from kayu secang, sappan wood, which releases an intense pink-orange pigment when submerged in hot water. It doesn’t add any distinctive flavor, apart from a light cedarwoood-like accent, but it’s known as a potent antioxidant.

In this video, you can see what happens when you put a sliver of sappan wood in hot water.

I’m giving the recipe here as a curiosity because outside of South East Asia these ingredients can be hard to find. Still, it’s good to know what exists out there, and if you ever find yourself in a spice garden, you’ll appreciate how versatile the aromatic plants are.

Of course, you can make a similar tea by creating your own mix of spices and accenting it with roasted ginger. For instance, for a different but equally delicious tea you can boil 10 cloves, 2 pieces of cinnamon bark, 2 stalks of lemongrass, a piece of broiled ginger (see the recipe) and add some grated nutmeg at the end.

Cassia leaves, tej patta, are widely available from Indian stores. You can use them instead of bay leaves to add a sweet spicy note to rice, vegetable and meat dishes.

Wedang Uwuh

2L water
10 cloves
1/4 cup kayu secang, sappan wood
4 dried clove leaves
4 dried cinnamon leaves
4 dried nutmeg leaves
a piece of ginger root, 2″ long
rock sugar, to taste

Broil ginger root until it’s covered with charred spots, peel and slice thickly. Mix everything together, add water and boil for 15 minutes. Strain and add sugar to taste. In Yogyakarta, the tea is made sweet, using about 1/2c sugar for the amount I listed, but it’s up to you. I prefer it only lightly sweetened to taste the spices more clearly.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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23 Comments

  • Karen A: Broiled ginger root!!! Who knew! Never would have thought of broiling ginger, now looking forward to getting some and trying your recipe. Many thanks! May 22, 2020 at 7:42am Reply

    • Victoria: There is another Indonesian tea called teh bandrek that uses broiled or roasted ginger. There are many recipes online, and it might be easier to make than wedang uwuh for those of us in the NA and Europe. You can google different recipes and make your own mix. It’s seriously warming, though, so it’s not the tea I make during warm weather, unless I’m feeling like I’m coming down with something. May 22, 2020 at 8:21am Reply

      • Karen A: Oh, good to know! Extra warming is definitely not what I need in the summer!! May 22, 2020 at 12:13pm Reply

        • Victoria: Judith just mentioned jamu. You can find many recipes online, and at some point I’ll share mine. It’s a good drink all year round. May 22, 2020 at 3:00pm Reply

        • Victoria: But I have to say that broiling ginger is a fun experiment for anyone who is interested in scents. It loses its spicy freshness and begins to smell like incense. May 22, 2020 at 3:16pm Reply

  • Marsha: Lovely post! May 22, 2020 at 9:13am Reply

  • kat: I wonder if that was the inspiration for many of the mulled wine recipes floating around Europe May 22, 2020 at 10:49am Reply

    • Victoria: There is such a long tradition of making spiced herbal drinks. And the original colognes were meant to be taken internally, rather than rubbed onto skin. Guerlain still makes one of its colognes in a drinkable versions but I forget which one. May 22, 2020 at 2:59pm Reply

      • Tourmaline: How intriguing!

        I couldn’t find the drink on the Guerlain website, but when I googled “Guerlain drink”, I found two other interesting articles. The first is from The Financial Times.

        https://howtospendit.ft.com/food-drink/86381-teatime-at-maison-guerlain-paris

        The food photograph and descriptions made me feel hungry! The writer mentions a “giant Shalimar macaron flavoured with clementine and bergamot”. But she says that ‘the real find is the fragrant Guerlain tea list. These teas exquisitely reflect the vanilla and amber accords often found in Guerlain fragrances – the selection took tea specialist Constance Braud more than a year to perfect. “You can change the world with a cup of tea,” she says. “It’s drinkable perfume.”’

        The second article describes cocktails based on Guerlain fragrances.

        https://www.malaysianfoodie.com/2018/10/three-canton-presents-sensational-guerlain-perfume-cocktails.html#.Xs5qPvZuLIU May 27, 2020 at 10:24am Reply

        • Victoria: Guerlain has a whole collection of teas inspired by its classics. I wrote about recreating Shalimar tea here:
          https://boisdejasmin.com/2014/01/guerlain-shalimar-tea-recipe.html May 27, 2020 at 10:45am Reply

          • Tourmaline: Thank you for this link. I shall read the article after breakfast tomorrow – while I’m sipping tea! (I’m up late again, night owl that I am…) May 27, 2020 at 10:57am Reply

        • Victoria: I just checked the list of drinks and no, there was no tea inspired by cologne:
          https://boisdejasmin.com/2013/12/guerlain-flavored-tea-collection.html
          Just one Neroli scented blend. Come to think of it, tea scented with Eau de Guerlain would be fantastic, wouldn’t it? May 27, 2020 at 10:46am Reply

          • Tourmaline: It would indeed!

            Thank you for this link – another delightful tea-sipping read.

            Now, which fragrance shall I wear tomorrow – Shalimar or Eau de Guerlain? Actually, the clear winner is Shalimar, because I can’t get the idea of a giant Shalimar macaron out of my head, and because it’s rather cold here in Brisbane at the moment. On Monday it will be winter, and last Saturday, we had the coldest May day in almost a century. (Cold is relative, of course; a Brisbane winter is probably like a particularly warm Ukraine summer, and possibly a Belgian one, too!) May 27, 2020 at 12:07pm Reply

  • Judith Marianne: What a lovely story, V. It’s been ages since I tasted the real Wedang Uwuh, I really miss it. I make my own version of herbal infusion/jamu for the girls from steeped turmeric, ginger, cinnamon & cloves. Not exactly Wedang Uwuh but it’s the closest I can get. Reading this made me homesick. Take care ! May 22, 2020 at 1:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, thank you for reminding me of jamu. I need to make it, especially since I have turmeric on hand. Do you mind sharing your proportions? May 22, 2020 at 3:01pm Reply

  • Aurora: So original, I learn so many things by reading your blog. It really makes sense to use the barks, leaves, anything that’s left of the spice trade. I have some of the spices you list in my spice cabinet. A tradition in my family was to insert cloves in onions for pot-au-feu using a sharp knife. It makes the onions look very pretty too. May 23, 2020 at 6:32am Reply

    • Victoria: My great-grandmother also added a couple of allspice berries when making stock. It gave such a nice flavor. May 27, 2020 at 7:12am Reply

  • Ninon: Thank you for this. I’m Dutch-Indonesian and this is very nostalgic for me. May 24, 2020 at 3:13am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s such an evocative taste, isn’t it! May 27, 2020 at 7:08am Reply

  • Erry: Victoria, thank you for the article. It not that often finding article related to Indonesian culture especially one that is finely written such as yours.

    I’m Indonesian but only recently know about Wedang Uwuh. I’m from West Java, so I’m more familiar with Bandrek. And yes, Bandrek is far more warming than Wedang Uwuh but I love them the same.

    While in Indonesia, did you have the chance to try telon oil, tawon oil and many more? May 28, 2020 at 11:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Erry! I fell in love with this tea from the first sip. Until then I only tried bandrek. I ended up buying a bunch of books about minuman tradisional at Gramedia and experimenting once I got home.

      I have minyak tawon in my bathroom right now. The scent makes me feel instantly refreshed. Do you like it too? May 29, 2020 at 2:30am Reply

      • Erry: At first, I didn’t like minyak tawon as I found it too strong for my liking. But, it grew on me. I prefer minyak telon and there’s one brand that has it mixed with minyak tawon. I love it. May 29, 2020 at 3:06am Reply

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