Ramuan Malaysia, as with other ancient Eastern healing philosophies, believes that balance within the universe and the body is the foundation of health and wellbeing. Malays believe that outer beauty is a reflection of inner health, and to this end, traditional healers advocate a varied, primarily plant-based diet comprising vegetables, fruits, grains and the best of nature’s healing roots, bark, stems, seeds and flowers from the region’s tropical forests. These plant-based healthcare remedies are handed down from mother to daughter in the Malay household.
Traditional Malay medicine combines the wisdom and practices of early Orang Asli (indigenous people) with those of the culturally more advanced Malay traders and voyagers who first settled in the region from as early as 1’000 BC. Malaya, being on the Spice Trade Route, had the advantage of attracting congregations of traders from India, China and the Arab world who added their own medical philosophies to the Malay traditions. The biologically rich and diverse tropical rainforests, moreover, were and will continue to be an amazing source of ingredients.
The tungku batu or heated stone therapy has been used by the locals to help increase strength and vitality, as well as provide other benefits. This therapy is now one of the most popular among the traditional Malay therapies offered in spas throughout the country. River or clay stones are first wrapped with selected spices and herbs, which include fenugreek, black seed and leaves of betel and morinda. These are then tied together; using a cotton cloth to create a pouch. Medicated ointment is applied on the affected areas before the hot pouch is used as part of a deep-pressure massage to loosen muscles completely, alleviate pain, reduce inflammation and thoroughly relax the body. The technique is still widely practised by women after child birth, as it helps to improve blood circulation and the functioning of the uterus; it also helps to restore a firmer body after birth. In addition, the tungku batu is used to enhance agility in men. This treatment is recommended to relieve pressure on the spinal cord, and has proven effective in helping to correct and overcome chronic backache.
The urut Melayu is a traditional Malaysian massage that uses oil along with long kneading strokes to stimulate the flow of blood and energy through the urat (veins and arteries). The therapy is meant to invigorate the body.
The muka berseri-seri is a traditional Malaysian facial treatment that makes use of a mini herbal pouch packed with commonly used local herbs, such as turmeric and wild ginger, to cleanse and recharge the skin. During the facial, the warmed pouch is pressed against the skin together with specific massage techniques, leaving the skin fresh and revitalised.
The lapis-lapis or Malay herbal wrap was traditionally performed prior to a Malay massage as it draws out impurities from within the body. The wrap comprises a mixture of fresh warming herbs such as betel, ginger, lemongrass and galangal that is applied to the body. The body is then cosseted in warm sheets to induce sweating and detoxification, and to promote lymphatic drainage. Cooling aloe vera, turnip and cucumber wraps can also be used to cool down a build-up of excess heat.
The ikal mayang or hair cream bath is just one of a range of hair care treatments traditionally used by women to keep their hair healthy, shiny and strong. Originally practised by Malay princesses, this treatment makes use of a combination of coconut oil, rice stalks and pandan leaves to deeply condition and strengthen hair from the roots to the tips.
A wide variety of Malay baths (mandi), often taken as a prelude or finale to a treatment, is offered in Malaysian spas. An eclectic mix of fruits, roots, leaves and flowers is added to the water to relax and heal the body. For example, in the mandi bunga or floral bath, exotic flowers such as roses, jasmine, cempaka and kenanga in addition to medicinal-aromatic woods such as sandalwood and gaharu combine to cleanse and thoroughly refresh the body.
The ukup, also known as body steaming, is the traditional method of internal cleansing. In the past, during this procedure, a person would sit over an earthenware pot (or buyung) filled with an aromatic concoction of roots, flowers and rose water heated to boiling point; this mixture was specially formulated to provoke intense sweating and toxin elimination in the person undergoing treatment. Ukup was believed to be one of the quickest ways to bring the body back to equilibrium.
Unlike the traditional ukup, a variety of steam infusions is used in spas today, including ukup wangi or scented body steaming, which uses infusions from pandan leaves, tropical blooms such as jasmine and splashes of fresh kaffir lime leaves or rose water to penetrate the skin and leave the body refreshed and radiant; ukup rempah or spicy steam has a powerful detoxification effect, while ukup kering is a dry herbal steam that rejuvenates body and mind.
Ramuan describes a carefully selected blend of medicinal plants and plant parts that Malaysians regularly consume to promote health, beauty and a balance in their daily lives. The variety of plants used in traditional ramuan depends on a combination of their medicinal properties. Several distinct plant parts including roots, rhizomes, bark, stems, fruits, flowers and seeds can be consumed as both medicine and food to optimise general well being and health. For example, ubat periuk is a detoxifying herbal drink comprising senna leaves, betel leaves, galangal, ginger, and ingredients like temu lawak, sepang, jemuju, cekur and lempoyang that purge the body of excess heat and excess waste.
A significant number of edible plants double up as beauty aids and are widely consumed as ulam or herbal cocktails. The most common culinary herbs employed are mint, pandan leaves, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, torch ginger flowers and curry leaves, all of which are believed to have anti ageing and skin-enhancing benefits. These herbs are combined with local health promoting vegetables to make the freshest, most delicate ulam. Today, these herbal ingredients are available in markets throughout the country.
With its roots firmly grounded in Traditional Chinese Medicine, typical Malay therapies also incorporate Chinese techniques such as tui na, reflexology, moxibustion and acupuncture. These are all designed to rebalance, revitalise and harmonise the mind, body and spirit.