Just as ginseng is synonymous with Korea, or Java turmeric is a natural medical treasure native to Indonesia.
As part of Indonesia’s centuries-old traditional healing practices, has long been used as an anti-inflammatory and antibacterial agent in treating many ailments, including swelling, gastric and digestive problems, stiff muscles, coughs and runny nose.
“As far as we know, can only be found in Indonesia,” says Gunawan T., managing director of Helmigs Prima Sejahtera, a pharmaceutical and curcumin products manufacturer.
“There are some individuals in several countries, like Malaysia, who have done research on their own varieties of at Yonsei University in South Korea, but the results show these plants are nothing like .”
So even if the Java turmeric exists elsewhere, Gunawan says, “I can confidently say the best comes from Indonesia.”
Having the best variety is one thing, but Indonesia can also churn out the stuff by the truckload.
Central Java and East Java, for instance, are just two of several provinces that farm on a large scale.
East Java alone produces up to 9 million kilograms of ready-to-sell each year. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s hometown of Pacitan in the province is the country’s hub, recording harvests of 5 million kilograms of the tuber each year.
Other East Java towns, such as Trenggalek, Malang and Pasuruan, are also major producers.
The head of the Pacitan horticulture agency, Budiwahyuningsih, says the geographical conditions in the west of the province, where Pacitan is located, are perfect for growing . She points out the dry, hillside soil is ideal for the plant as well as for ginger and turmeric, which don’t really require water.
“There’s no special trick to growing ,” Budiwahyuningsih says.
“Just plant them like normal in between teak or clove trees.”
She says plants grow to an average height of 1 meter, and are ready for harvest within seven to 12 months. The best time to harvest is toward the 10th to 12th months, when the leaves start dying.
“ is a unique because the plant has a long life cycle,” she says.
“So even if you don’t harvest it now, you can still do so at the next harvest season.”
After harvest, the rhizomes or tubers are cleaned and diced up into thin slices. They are then dried in an oven before being packed for the distributors who in turn sell them to manufacturers of -based products.
Gunawan’s company, Helmigs Prima Sejahtera, in the East Java capital Surabaya, is one of a handful of such manufacturers. Established in 1993, the company markets a range of products, including curcumin sugar-free effervescent, curcumin tablets, curcumin candy with Xylitol, and curcumin health drinks.
Factory manager Sutarko Tantra says the company processes several tons of extract into ready-to-consume products each day, combining traditional and modern methods.
The modern methods include the measurement of the properties contained in and the packaging of the curcumin extract into tablets and sachets using a machine imported from China.
“We follow high standards with high quality control because we don’t only market our products in Indonesia, but also overseas,” Sutarko says, adding the export markets include Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, Canada, the Netherlands, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.
He says most of the company’s products are exported, because based on their studies, foreigners are more aware of the health benefits of .
“The biggest demand for our products comes from Korea, for instance,” Sutarko says, adding most Indonesians are far less aware about the wonder herb.
In 2007, for instance, when the government launched the National Campaign for the Drink, business such as hotels did not embrace the plan to serve the herb as a welcome drink. The opposite holds true in Malaysia and Korea, Sutarko says.
“In Malaysia, the government is endorsing the Tongkat Ali drink in really attractive promotional ways,” he points out.
Former Indonesian research and technology minister Kusmayanto Kadiman said in September that
the government was working on making a part of Indonesians’ daily lives – in food, cosmetics, medicine and dietary supplements.
In efforts to promote to the world, Indonesian researchers and producers have shown their support for the government, as demonstrated through the first international symposium on in Bogor last year.
“The Indonesian government must work to promote among local residents and the world before any other country stakes a claim to ,” Gunawan says.
Dian Kuswandini contributed to this story from Jakarta.