On a sunny morning in North Sumatra, a mother fixes herself a warm bowl of nutrient dense soup. It has only been a few months since she bore her firstborn, and he is the only thing on her mind. A vital point in anyone’s life, determined by the first months of entering into this world. A mother’s wish is to deliver the very best life has to offer, and for the first months she has done everything to ensure that she can do exactly that. As she stirs the simmering soup, she remembers the old wisdom shared by her mother and their mothers. An age-old tradition that she still carries with her–-dedicating each morning to sip on a soup made with an indigenous plant found near her home, namely known as Torbangun.
Looking back, the story of how and why this became a tradition remains unknown but what keeps this tradition alive is the common shared knowledge of this plant. It is believed that the leaves of Bangun Bangun (Torbangun) contain properties that help nursing mothers in boosting the quality and production of breast milk, providing all the essentials needed by newborns. Surprisingly, when asked across Indonesia, the first plant named that is believed to have galactagogue (food that increases in milk production) compounds is not Torbangun, but Daun Katuk. Outshone by the popularity of Katuk and only thriving in parts of Sumatra, the leaves of Bangun-Bangun remained underappreciated. Also fighting on the international turf, Torbangun remained in the shadows compared to Fenugreek. It is only in the past decades that science has come across this specific plant and wondered as to why these beliefs remain strong.
Science (and myself) asked the classic 5W1H.
- Who – Who first realized that it helps nursing women produce more breast milk?
- What – What is in the plant? What specific properties make it considered a galactogogue? What is the best method to consume Bangun Bangun?
- When – When did the knowledge spread? When did it become a topic of research?
- Where – Where could you get fresh Torbangun outside of Sumatra?
- Why – Why is it traditionally served as soup? Why is the processing method important?
- How – How can we utilize this plant in new ways? How do I consume it?
And with the help of research, experimentation, lecturers, scientific journals, and ample time, it has allowed me to discover (some) answers and dig deeper between the relationship of food, science, tradition and our bodies.
So, what’s in a leaf? Words like tannin, chlorophyll, antioxidants, flavonoids, phenols, stems, plant sterol all come to mind when talking about leaves. With each type of leaf having specific chemical composition, what makes Torbangun effective is their unique composition. Through research and testing, Bangun-Bangun leaves have shown high levels of antioxidants, phenolic and flavonoid compounds. Now, if you’ve burned all memory of chemistry (don’t worry, we’ve all struggled to get A’s in that class) – it’s all the good stuff that makes your body able to protect itself against blood clots, heart problems, maintain sugar levels as well as aid digestion. These compounds are especially important and are seen to correlate with better milk production when consumed by nursing mothers. In its purest form as a leaf, Bangun Bangun expresses these great qualities, but you wouldn’t be too thrilled to munch on raw leaf every morning, would you?
Just as you bake dough, sauté broccoli, or deep fry potatoes, boiling leaves affects its composition. Any form of cooking transforms raw material into something that might enhance or diminish itself. The women of Sumatra found a practical way to consume and reap the benefits of Bangun Bangun leaves, by making it into soup. This simple yet effective form becomes imbued in their way of life. However, as time progressed, the call for innovation and the need for trade has pushed Torbangun into a household plant and readily available in many forms. Fresh leaves are now available to be packed and bought from local farmers in most parts of Indonesia for mothers to incorporate into their diet or DIY in any way they feel. RTD (Ready to Drink) products, cakes, juices and even herbal Torbangun tea bags are now stocked in the market and sold as a galactagogue or as we know it here – ASI Booster. The scientific discovery that leans to prove Torbangun’s properties as a galactogogue, propelled researchers in Indonesia to utilize and experiment on these leaves thus making it more accessible to the market. The hopes of providing more information and accessibility to Torbangun made it a relatively well known leaf today, impacting a wider range and providing alternatives for nursing mothers nationwide to help give the best to their newborns. But with the ever growing innovations, and the instant culture of today’s society, we tend to forget the way it was first presented – as a simple soup.
It’s always impressive to see the growth of how just one single plant that stems for tradition, culture and beliefs would branch out into a variety of products who all claim that their unique processing and way to consume would result in the most absorbed nutrients for our bodies. Now when we look at this in a wider scope, this trend applies to all food. One ingredient can be made in countless ways, with countless methods that will result in countless flavors and countless nutritional composition. Food stemming from tradition, with science following in pursuit to prove its benefits or disadvantages. The paradox of choice leads to a question that should be raised as conscious eaters: Why do we eat? What dictates our food choices? Do we eat because it tastes good? Do we eat because of its health benefits, regardless if it doesn’t suit your taste buds? Are processes meant to only enhance flavor and diminish its nutritional value? Is food in its purest form meant to be eaten as is?
These answers remain only for your thoughts, and most of the time I find myself changing my stance as I enter different parts of life, but I am inviting you to take a closer look at our personal relationship with food and take a moment to appreciate its origins and how it has developed into what it is now. Just a little food for thought for a sunny morning.
Damanik, R., Wahlqvist, M. L., & Wattanapenpaiboon, N., (2006), Lactagogue effects of Torbangun, a Bataknese traditional cuisine, Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition, 15(2), pp. 267.
Irianti, B. (2021), Effectiveness of Torbangun Leaf Soup in Increasing Breast Milk Production in Breastfeeding Women in Dince Safrina Pratama Clinic, Pekanbaru City, Journal Of Midwifery And Nursing Vol. 3, No. 2, May 2021 • ISSN 2656-0739 pp. 72-75
Iwansyah, A., Damanik, R. M., Kustiyah, L. I. L. I. K., & Hanafi, M. U. H. A. M. M. A. D., (2016), Relationship between antioxidant properties and nutritional composition of some galactopoietics herbs used in indonesia: a comparative study, Int. J Pharm Pharm Sci, 8(12), pp. 236-243.
Matita I.C., Mastuti, T.S., and Maitri, S. (2020), Antioxidant Properties of Different Types of Torbangun Herbal Tea, Reaktor, 20(1), 18-25, http://dx.doi.org/10.14710/reaktor.20.1.18-25.