The First Jenang Museum in the World is Opened in Kudus

“We live our lives forward, but we understand them backwards.” – Jeff Goins

The museum shows you how jenang was made a long time ago traditionally. It was a lengthy and energy-consuming task. Imagine rowing gently for hours. That’s perhaps what it felt like.

Jenang is dark-colored sticky snack primarily made of flour and palm sugar. Though it resembles ‘dodol’ that you may discover in some other areas in Java (such as Garut, West Java), jenang is only discoverable in Kudus, Central Java. And the town happens to be my place of origin.

To understand how jenang became the food that we all know now, we need to know its origin. Legend has it that jenang kudus is believed to be closely related with a village named Kaliputu, located in the heart of the regency. It happened when Sunan Kudus (a local religious leader born centuries ago in the advent of Islam in the Hinduism-and Buddhism-dominated Java)  and Syekh Jangkung (also known as Saridin)  and Mbah Depok Soponyono and his grandchild began a journey. In the course of it, Mbah Depok Soponyono along with his grandchild was playing with doves by a riverbank. Without warning, his grandchild  fell into the river and got drowned in an instant. The child was at last rescued by a number of  people living around the scene.

Upon learning this, Sunan Kudus and Syekh Jangkung rushed to the riverbank where the people gathered and turned desperate as they found the body. They panicked and could do nothing about it. Sunan Kudus drew a conclusion that the child already lost his life. But Syekh Jangkung stated that Soponyono’s grandchild  was actually still alive. The thing was he only died temporarily. And to wake him up, Syekh Jangkung was asked to cook ‘jenang bubur gamping’ (roughly translated to ‘calcite porridge jenang’) so he coud feed the poor child. The porridge was called so as it was made of rice flour, salt and coconut milk (all of these ingredients are naturally white in color). And then Sunan Kudus remarked,”Suk nek ono rejaning jaman wong Kaliputu uripe seko jenang.” It meant:”One day all these people living in Kaliputu village will  be earning a living from making jenang.

This story was orally passed on from generation to generation and definitely hard to find its validity as there was no historic record stating so. As an expression of gratitude, every the first of Muharram (i.e. the Islamic New Year), Kaliputunese natives hold Kirab Tebokan or a parade dubbed ‘Arak-arakan Jenang’.

If you’re curious as to how this story went on in the modern 20th century (whether or not these people really make a living by making jenang), Jenang Museum on Jalan Sunan Muria (Sunan Muria Street), Kudus, is the place to go to. It was founded by the third generation of a family having been running the most renowned jenang business for almost a century in Kudus. The first generation of it lasted from 1910 to 1940. The couple was H. Mabruri (H means Haji, assigned to a man after completing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land) and Hj. Alawiyah (Hj means Hajjah, a Haji for a woman). They passed the business on H. A. Shochib and Hj. Istifaiyah. The second generation was running the business for 52 years (1940-1992). Afterwards, the third generation took over in 1992. Currently H. Muhammad Helmy and Hj. Nujumullaily are responsible for the entire business operations.

As I went into the museum (which was located on the second floor of a building), I found the place was filled with quite numerous photographs printed on – I assumed – sheets of cloth. They were probably reproduced digitally so as to cut the costs.

There’s much room for improvement in the way these vintage photos are showcased in fact. Because people don’t want to just see and then nod and leave without impression. They need contexts behind each photo presented. What makes it important for them to know this? And most importantly, why should they appreciate the past more than before?

Most of the photos showing public facilities and places in Kudus during the Dutch Colonial Era are showcased with labels. But to me (and even my father who was born in the early 1950s), the labels do not help us to understand the historical context behind each photo. The artefacts surely have a purpose to be there, and I couldn’t fathom the reason why they are all there except they are there to be create the atmosphere that a museum should have: antique, old, and historic. Whoever designed the museum forget building the ties so visitors at any ages could more easily relate themselves to the photos. So when I was there to sightsee, I failed to find something insightful for me to bring home and kept for the rest of my life. The artefacts are so detached from their context that visitors like myself had no opportunities to comprehend the reason why this or that matters to me, to understand who I really am as a human being.

Hence, the museum succeeded in its attempt at building bridges for us to understand why jenang still exists now, has claimed its unique place as a signature food of the town and how Jenang 33 (the brand the family has built for decades) has stood out among other jenang brands in the regency.  We can learn the lineage of the family from three generations. But aside from that, there is nothing I could find or discover. The photos of old public places and vital objects in Kudus they exhibit served nothing more than decoration to impress. So if I had had the authority to change the name of museum, I would have renamed it into “Museum Jenang 33”. My reason is that the museum seemed to contain more information and background of the jenang brand and business and the people responsible for its glory.  But even if I renamed it after all, the name would not fit perfectly as there is a higher number of photo collection not related to jenang or jenang making or jenang history at all. Take the brief bio of Raden Mas Panji Sosrokartono and Ngasirah (the biological mother of Raden Ajeng Kartini – the women emancipation hero in the country) as some examples. They don’t seem to fit in the collection because both were no jenang makers, or very likely to have contributed nothing to the jenang industry. Or if there were any contributions or ties, there was no slightest mention of them. There are also many other photos such one showing the town square in 1936 (without mentioning any historical background to accompany the photo as to why people in the photo behaved the different way from one of people in Kudus these days), a family photograph of the family of Raden Mas Tumenggung Tjondronegoro (also known as Poerwolelono, who was also a travel writer whose writing was in Dutch and published in mass media) dated 1867, etc.  There are also photos of some vital objects in the town, for instance one of the central police station dated 1928 (a few Dutch key officers were also in sight, with the majority of police officers were of course locals), one of a public theater taken in 1929, one of Kudus Main Train Station taken in 1936.

Despite my criticism, I truly like the place as it serves as a good point to start learning the history of jenang and the town itself. As far as I’m concerned, visiting a museum has hardly ever been a pleasure for locals. There is a subtle assumption that museums are built and opened and thus must be visited only by either school-aged children or tourists. There is no logical reason why a local should be there except for making money from tourists’ visits.

But if I really am allowed to provide recommendations of betterment of the museum, I’d say they must prepare people (recruited as curators or guides to stand by at the museum) with deep and broad understanding of the history of jenang, meaning it includes not only the history of the brand and family history but also how it was usually made in the past, what utensils were required and how jenang was made back then, and we may go forward to the current progress when modern industrialism came and was adopted, enabling jenang to be produced by machines and wrapped in plastic and shiny, neat dark paper boxes, in various novel tastes and flavors no one had never imagined before. With the presence of guides or curators to tell people stories (contexts) behind whatever is shown there, the museum is going to be one of the vital centers of history learning. That said, people know more about the roots, the society they are living in with all the norms and traditions and beliefs and customs.

The museum was recently founded so we may expect more improvement in the upcoming years. And if you think it’s interesting, but know nothing about how to get there, send me your query via email at akhlis(at)merahputih(dot)com. (*/)