The sweet smell of Indonesia

For Indonesians, clove kretek cigarettes are more than just a pleasure – they are a national symbol

The name “kretek” comes from the crackling sound that these distinctive clove cigarettes make as they burn. They contain tobacco, minced clove buds and a choice of fruit or herb extracts, the so-called saus that give kreteks their unmistakable flavour. They may look like a simple cigarette, but the significance of kreteks goes a lot deeper: they are nothing less than a national cultural icon.

Kreteks have their origins in 1880, when they were first introduced as a medicinal product. The invention is attributed to Haji Jamhari, who added cloves to soothe his asthma. The mixture seems to have worked and Jamhari started selling his hand-rolled rokok cengkeh (“clove cigarettes”) through pharmacies.

This was shortly after the first western-style cigarette had been imported to the Dutch East Indies. Promoted by the colonial rulers, the “white” cigarettes were initially seen as a symbol of modernity. However, Indonesia’s independence in 1945 boosted the popularity of kreteks as cigarettes that had been invented by an Indonesian and were produced in Indonesia. Seen as a symbol of burgeoning national pride, the dark-coloured kreteks were a symbolic weapon against the “white cigarettes” and presumably also the western companies.

Lower tax rates and increasingly automated production saw the popularity of kreteks rise even further in the 90s, and the kretek industry in Indonesia – which is the world’s second-largest tobacco market after China – presently counts 500 manufacturers. The sector employs roughly 10 million people and about one thirds of kreteks are still hand-rolled.

About 94 % of all smokers in Indonesia choose kretek and there’s absolutely no doubt that kreteks will remain central to the national spirit, particularly because Indonesia also happens to grow around 80 % of cloves worldwide.

Picture: iStock by Getty Images, brunorbs

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