Semarang: Indonesia's City of Jamu

MARCH 26, 2012

Wahyuni Kamah

Semarang, the capital of Central Java, is a vital port city nestled on the Java Sea. Ships from China, India and Europe have long come to Semarang’s docks to trade, helping the city to grow into an industrial hub for both big and small manufacturers.

Semarang is also the center of Indonesia’s jamu industry, where several factories — such as Nyonya Meneer and Jamu Jago — have thrived for decades.

Jamu is an ancient Indonesian herbal medicine made from roots, herbs and spices, fruits, vitamins and sweeteners. The drink is believed to have been created in the Mataram Kingdom of Central Java around the 8th century.

The nearly countless recipes for jamu were documented in lontar leaves, or palm leaf manuscripts, found in Bali, Sulawesi and Java.

More than 1,734 formulations of jamu have been cataloged in a book, “Kawruh Bab Jampi Jawi” (“Knowledge About Javanese Herbs”), which was published in 1858. But modern iterations and mass production of jamu have found their footing in the past century.

While the West has promoted organic cuisines and a “back to nature” mentality over the past decade, Indonesians have long adhered to natural remedies without mainstream recognition. But in the wake of modern medicine, doctors currently consider jamu a supplement rather than a primary remedy.

Being a jamu connoisseur and knowing a little about its history, I jumped at the chance to visit one of the only museums dedicated to the drink, at Semarang’s Nyonya Meneer factory, named after one of jamu’s most important alchemists and proprietors.

While the Nyonya Meneer museum only tells the history of jamu produced in the factory, it’s still a worthwhile visit. The manufacturer brings attention to jamu’s national heritage.

When Nyonya Meneer’s husband fell sick in the early 1900s, she sought out all manner of medical attention to cure him. But the doctor’s efforts were in vain, and Nyonya’s husband remained ill.

Increasingly desperate, Nyonya tried to make a formulation from herbs and spices — jamu godok — that she had learned from her mother. The ingredients were boiled together, and where nothing else could help her sick husband, the herbal medicine cured him. The man was completely healed.

Nyonya, who was originally from Sidoarjo, East Java, also gave the jamu to her neighbors. By word of mouth, her jamu was hailed for its purported restorative powers. To expand her knowledge, she hired a teacher to study Dutch, then studied pharmacology from Dutch texts (one of the Dutch pharmacy books she used as a reference can be found in the museum).

In 1919, Nyonya Meneer began to produce jamu at home by employing her neighbors, who used traditional tools such as a mortar and grinder to pound the ingredients, as well as an anglo (or brazier), a type of stove, and a copper sink to boil the liquid materials on the anglo.

Nyonya’s impromptu home industry was located on Jalan Raden Patah in Semarang, which is now the location of a Nyonya Meneer retailer.

Pictures in the museum show how the production was carried out in her small factory. Nyonya’s picture was printed on jamu sachets to assure customers they were buying an authentic Nyonya Meneer product.

According to a guide at the museum, no chemical preservatives are used in their jamu, though natural preservatives such as cinnamon are often utilized. The guide said jamu does not work the way modern medicine does and therefore takes longer to heal symptoms.

Continuing my tour through Semarang’s jamu history, I also visited the Jamu Jago company.

The Jamu Jago factory began production in 1918 in Semarang, when T.K. Suprana was taught by his mother to make jamu, learning the nuances of the drink and experimenting with several variations. The progress of Jamu Jago was supported by Bagoes Kadhim. a Javanese medicine expert who headed the company’s production.

The Jamu Jago museum features photographs, a summary of the company’s history as well as samples of herbal ingredients, which are displayed on open benches.

“Our ancestors used ingredients for jamu based on the characteristics of the plants,” said Paulus Pangka, general manager of Jago. He showed me the bark of a tree that is used to make jamu rapat for women. He broke the dry bark into two pieces, releasing sap. The sap inclines to unite the two broken barks. “You see, because of this characteristic, it is used as ingredient for jamu rapat,” he added.

Of equal interest among Jamu Jago’s historical records are the old printings and advertisements. While sparse, the collections are worth a view, especially the old brochures about the various jamu products, and the antiquated advertising media used to promote them.

As early as 1955, Jamu Jago used film to promote its products and held a quiz conducted by postcard mailers about the intricacies of jamu.

Antique typing machines and calculators that were used by company are also on display, as well as a mockup of the modern production process of Jamu Jago.

Unfortunately, over the past ten years, jamu-makers have used chemicals in their products, tarnishing the organic, wholistic reputation of the traditional drink.

Still, jamu remains a proud part of Indonesian heritage, as well as a vital part of local industry. Because of the intensive and thorough labor required, the jamu industry provides many jobs in local economies, especially when considering the raw materials are produced by local farmers.

But more importantly, like batik or wayang, jamu is a cultural pillar.