A Glass of ‘Jamu’: Java, Indonesia

While French cartoon character Asterix has his magic potion and the secret to biblical figure Samson’s strength was in his hair, Jakartans rely on warung jamu street stalls to get them through the day.

The stalls are difficult to miss as they are usually painted bright colors with bottles and packages of jamu powder displayed attractively. Several major industry players help the small businesses along in return for stocking their products.

A 500-year-old Javanese tradition, taking jamu, herbal health drinks, is an integral part of the lives of many Indonesians, from children to the elderly.

The industry is currently worth Rp 2.5 trillion — 12 percent of the country’s annual pharmacy market take, and with Indonesia’s population of 220 million, has plenty of room to grow.

The value of the herbal drinks and medicine market is expected to reach Rp 7.5 trillion by 2010.

There are an estimated 105 middle-to-large scale jamu manufacturers in Indonesia, 1,037 smaller outfits and more than 3,000 vendors nationwide, although only 615 businesses are registered with the Indonesian Association of Jamu Manufacturers.

The Central Java towns Banyumas and Cilacap are generally regarded as the centers of the industry.

While long-established big businesses reap most of the benefits, the industry has a great trickle down effect on street vendors in the city, where many people work much more than an eight-hour day.

“I must be fit to be able to endure long working hours and night shifts. Two or three glasses of jamu a week help me keep in shape,” said 24-year old Davi, a waiter at a five-star hotel in Central Jakarta.

Davi buys his weekly dose of jamu from a corner shop in Bukit Cinere in Depok, south of Jakarta.

Tolak angin, pak,” he said to the shop attendant, requesting a drink meant to cure a case of the chills.

Henry, the 52-year-old owner and attendant of the shop, opened a pack of jamu powder, poured it into half a glass of warm water and mixed it together.

A minute later, Davi was handed a greenish brown beverage and a smaller pitcher of sugared water. Cost: Rp 3,000. For an extra Rp 2,000 a raw egg yolk, believed to boost stamina, can be added to the mix.

“Running this business is not time consuming,” said Henry. The West Sumatran first set up shop 11 years ago. He opens at 4 p.m. and closes at 11 p.m., taking home about Rp 150,000 a day.

Shops in busier areas can make up to Rp 500,000 a night, said Zulherman, who has run a jamu shop since 1991 in Pondok Labu, South Jakarta. Aside from selling branded ready-to-mix herbal drinks, Zulherman also provides his customers with his own home-made jamu.

“Some prefer it fresh. These can only last a day or two,” he said, pointing to large round bottles containing yellow and brown liquids.

Tolak angin, pegal linu and sehat lelaki are the best sellers in most shops, he said. Traditional medicine shops like his also sell local versions of Viagra, such as Pasti On or Mestika.

And jamu is not just for the kampong. The traditional romance associated with the herbal drinks has even infected five-star hotels. The Shangri-la hotel, for example, where Davi works, includes herbal drinks on its menu.

“The hotel hired a Javanese woman dressed in a kebaya and all to be the vendor. We offer it to guests before and after their meal,” he said. “Even expatriates have tried it.”

Other places to enjoy jamu” include the Indonesian restaurant chain Waroeng Podkok, which can be found at several malls, and other speciality shops around town. In South Jakarta’s Cipete, Jamu, a cafe specializing in herbal drinks, is often crowded with expatriate guests.

But the more expensive shops cannot compete with the street vendors and stalls. There are more than 600 jamu shops in Greater Jakarta, of which 90 percent are owned by West Sumatrans, members of the Jabotabek jamu vendors group.

“It is kind of a coincidence that most of us are West Sumatrans,” said 41-year-old Nelson Chaniago, who formerly sold shoes, at his shop in Lenteng Agung in South Jakarta.

“We all just happened to be looking for a less energy-draining business,” he said.

While most of the jamu shop owners are West Sumatrans, however, many of those running similar but smaller street-side businesses are West Javanese, usually from Cirebon. With more or less the same average daily turnover as the shops, ranging from Rp 150,000 to Rp 400,000, those with less funds prefer to open stalls.

“Stalls are more flexible. We can shift spots easily,” said 31-year-old Yono, who runs one in Ciledug, West Jakarta.

But when it comes to flexibility, the individual women who work as door-to-door jamu vendors take the prize. These women carry home-made herbal drinks in baskets on their backs or on bicycles, preferring a more personal approach to the business.

Mbook, I want beras kencur,” shouted 6-year old Olivia as she heard a woman offering a morning dose of the herbal drink at a housing complex in Sawangan, Depok.

The sweet and spicy drink Olivia asked for made of rice powder and kencur (Kaempferia galanga) and supposedly increases appetite, making it a favorite with mothers of children with eating disorders.

It is among the standard wares of the female jamu vendor, along with the fresh-tasting kunyit asam and the bitter brotowali.

Source: Jakarta Post