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.
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.
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.