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Health and Beauty from the Rainforest: Malaysian Traditions of Ramuan

Health and Beauty from the Rainforest: Malaysian Traditions of Ramuan. Gerard Bodeker (ed). Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Editions Didier Millet; 2009. Hardcover; 256 pages. ISBN–13: 978-981-4217-91-0. $29.50.

Ramuan is a Malay word for a mix of ingredients. The healing traditions of Malaysia are a mix of cultural influences from indigenous groups, Malays, Chinese, and Indians, with a sprinkling of European influence. Malaysia is home to one of the world’s oldest and most diverse rainforests, with upwards of 20,000 species of flowering plants. Traditional use of plants in Malaysian culture is itself a mix of food, medicine, and beauty all rolled into a single concept of health, where attempting to tease one from the other only defines the ingredients of ramuan. This new, beautifully illustrated volume serves to introduce Malaysian traditions of health, beauty, healing, and vital living to the world.

The book is written in a style intended to evoke appreciation and extend knowledge of ramuan to the non-scientific public. The introduction sets the stage for the feast that follows, with brief romantic descriptions of Malaysia, its rainforests, indigenous cultures, and traditions of health and beauty. A section on “Health and Beauty in Malay Society” follows, with separate chapters covering the principles of ramuan, Malay women’s health and beauty practices, men’s health in the Malay tradition, and health traditions of the Malay family.

“Healing Traditions and Their Adaptations” is the second section, with chapters on the indigenous groups of Malaysia, collectively known as the Orang Asli. “Indian Health Traditions” follows, sketching the Indian traditional medicine system of Ayurveda from its ancient past to modern place in Malaysian society. The section closes with a chapter defining “A Way of Life: Traditional Chinese Medicine in Malaysia,” tracing historical roots of TCM on the Malay Peninsula, with details of its place in modern Malaysian culture. Throughout these chapters are sidebars revealing the history, human interest, origins, and scientific relevance (in layman’s terms) of individual herbs used in ramuan.

The third section of the book, “The Spa in Malaysia,” explores the spa as a way of life, as seen through the Malays’ centuries-old traditions of therapeutic massage, balms, spiritual rituals, and sublime relaxation in the emphasis of wellness. In the world tourism market, Malaysia has positioned itself as a luxury spa destination. This section almost compels one to put the book down, get online, and book a ticket on the next flight to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. A final chapter links Malaysian wellness traditions with their potential contribution to global health, exploring international herb markets and Malaysia’s offerings mixing tradition with science, in an evolving role for the future.

The editors, designers, contributors, and publisher have produced a remarkable, readable, entertaining, even relaxing introductory masterpiece to the diverse, and until now, little-known healing and wellness traditions of Malaysia. This is the book you will want to have in your lap as you fly first class on Air Malaysia for a weeklong stay at a luxury Malaysian spa resort. (Keep buying those lottery tickets.)

When one writes a book, one has a target audience in mind, usually requiring a style specific to the subject and the reader. In this book, its collaborators have managed to create an accurate, inviting, compelling presentation that will appeal to almost any readership. It is as though the target audience was simply defined as anyone interested in food, herbs, health, wellness, and beauty who lives beyond Malaysia’s borders. This is not an easy feat to accomplish.

Beyond the text is a feature of the book of equal weight—the sumptuous photography of S.C. Shekar. There are very few pages that are not graced with beautiful photography of ramuan ingredients, preparations, and depictions of Malay traditional health, healing, and beauty practices. The lighting is perfect. Models are used in many photographs, yet they do not seem to be posed, appearing natural in each thoughtfully designed scene. Other illustrative matter includes appropriate historical photos and related graphics. The photographs convey the essence of the text and add exceptional beauty to the entire presentation. As a package, the book can be read or perused. Put it on the coffee table. Put it on the herb reference book shelf. It has something for everyone.

—Steven FosterPresident, Steven Foster Group, Inc.Eureka Springs, AR