Set in the hilly terrains of West Java, the weather is scorching by day until it chills at night. This time of day, the leisurely hours sandwiched between dinner and bedtime, is often a bonding moment to be savoured outside on terraces and small warungs. During these moments, the Sundanese like to have with them a cup of hot brew of their native bandrek to keep them company as lively chatters fill the night.
Bandrek is the name of the sweet and gingerly drink, satisfying to down after a meal and revered for its comforting properties as a beverage that keeps our bodies tenderly warm in the cold weather. Bandrek is to Indonesians a cup of mulled wine in winter — a pleasure to sip when the season is right.
Even its preparation is a showcase of local wisdom. The spicy kick is derived from the fire-burnt and bruised ginger, then cooked in a water-based concoction of palm sugar and pandan leaves for the basic recipe. Other iterations come from the brewer’s personal touch of adding native ingredients like cloves, cinnamon, cardamom pods, lemongrass, black pepper and even coconut milk, yielding a hot beverage that balances a complexity of flavours that work in harmony.
Drinking a cup or two suffices to do the warming trick. But in truth, it doesn’t induce any melatonin production (the sleep hormone that puts us to rest). Instead, bandrek relies on the blend’s natural heat to disperse relaxation throughout the body, like how a chakra spreads from the centre-out.
Perhaps it could be likened to the chamomile tea in function: to relax the body as we prepare for bed. Except, unlike the waterish chamomile, bandrek has a duality of flavour and function: “Let me burst a cocktail of spices to relax and warm you up,” it would say, probably. Anything but tame, and that’s the pleasure bandrek drinkers seek from the beverage.
Yet, traditional bandrek will not be for everybody, at least not right off the bat. The cloves are powerful and a touch bitter, cinnamon is woodsy, and the lemongrass citrusy. On top of the delicate flavours, there’s the spiciness of ginger, the hit or miss for many first-timers and an acquired taste for many.
Befitting a drink that packs a long list of native ingredients, bandrek delivers on the health properties too. It contains natural compounds that lower blood pressure and heal common ailments like body stiffness and inflammation, especially common these days with the long hours we submit to working on desks and laptops. Then there’s the magic of antioxidants that charge the immune system with just something extra to keep us fit.
With the rainy season upon us where every day fluctuates between unforgiving humidity and chill, bandrek sounds lovely. Homebrewing is always an idea for a personal project. Stalls and warung serve bandrek best enjoyed on the spot, the same way you wouldn’t wait to slurp on a refreshing cocktail in summer. The pleasure is similar to the delight of any delicately concocted drink: take your time to sip, and infuse it with conversations that stir you and your company. Sipped alone, a cup of bandrek is no less effective in inducing that sought-out peace.
Of the intangible pleasures of bandrek, it’s perhaps what the drink signifies that taunts our admiration: spices and exoticness weaved with local wisdom, warmth and healing — Indonesian riches in a single cup.