The word ‘tonic’ has been synonymous with ‘gin’ to Londoners since the late 1800s. But over on the other side of the world, Indonesians have been sipping their own (far more wholesome) tonic for over a thousand years. This sunny herbal elixir is entrenched in the Indonesian diet and consumed for its health benefits. It is anti-inflammatory, high in antioxidants, fights a bevy of diseases and reduces puffiness. It also detoxifies the liver, can aid arthritis and heart disease, boosts the metabolism and levels out mood swings. Which probably explains why Indonesia often tops polls for the world’s highest levels of well-being. Now pass me a bottle.
Dutch native Tanita de Ruijt became enamoured with the volcanic islands of Indonesia a few years ago, and quickly became hooked on turmeric tonic. The golden liquid – a concoction of powerful roots and flowers – is consumed by locals daily for everything from curing nausea to accelerating libido. “I got obsessed with turmeric tonic living in Bali. It was just everywhere,” Tanita tells us. “Sometimes hawkers sell it off the back of their mopeds, but traditionally it is sold by ladies who carry bottles on their backs”.
Tanita began drinking this ancient solution every day, and made it her mission to learn the secrets behind it. Indonesian kitchens are private spaces, and bagging an invitation into a home kitchen is not an easy feat. But it’s no surprise to learn that Tanita managed to charm her way into one. “I learned to make the tonic in a lady’s home kitchen with her children. She taught me everything,” she says. “I fell in love with it, and I became convinced that people at home would love it too.”
After returning to London from the sunny clime of Indonesia, Tanita continued brewing the heady concoction of ginger root, galangal, fresh turmeric, fermented tamarind, black pepper and coconut blossom nectar. Last year she launched her company Jamu Kitchen, and began selling the virtuous tincture at Druid Street Market.
Jamu Kitchen embodies a refreshing new attitude towards health foods, embracing ancient methods of eating. “I’ve always been around food. My mum was this uber hippy vegetarian, whereas my dad was always obsessed with steak and good wine. They weren’t together so I jumped between the two and I think it gave me a really good idea of balance,” Tanita explains. “I had this moment of clarity in Indonesia where I realised that the most natural foods are the healthiest. ‘Jamu’ is the Indonesia system of natural medicine – kind of what Ayurveda is to India. Turmeric tonic is a result of Indonesian people just using the foods that are around them to create something incredibly restorative. I love discovering ancient ways of cooking and preserving. Applying these ideas in a modern context is really exciting to me.”
If you haven’t had your head blown off by a bottle of Jamu Kitchen tonic yet, you’re in for a treat. It can be consumed hot or cold, and has a spicy, sweet, powerfully remedial flavour. Every bottle is crafted in Tanita’s home kitchen in single batches. We watch her whipping up a vat, filling the entire house with its zesty, rousing scent.
While the deep orange concoction bubbles away on the stove, Tanita explains the complexities of the process: “In Indonesia they would drink a big glass with a raw egg cracked in it. The fats help you absorb the turmeric enzymes.” She continues: “Coconut fats do the same thing, so I put a dollop of coconut oil in mine when it’s hot.” We quickly learn that the main player of this potion is the turmeric, which contains powerful curcumin compounds that are only activated when mixed with the right components. “It’s all about food synergy. When all the ingredients combine, that’s when the magic happens!” Tanita tells us.
Tanita’s glowing tonic is hard to ignore on any shelf, and is even harder to forget once you’ve taken the first mighty gulp. Each bottle is a celebration of the culinary traditions of Indonesia, which are as colourful and delicious as they are resourceful. “There are so many different flavours across Indonesia,” Tanita says, pouring the elixir into a row of hand-labeled bottles. “Every area has its own methods of using the land. In Bali everything is fresh and sour and sweet, whereas in Java things are more coconut-y and thick and fried. It’s a different colour and a different smell everywhere you go. They see it as medicine as well as sustenance. I think we can learn so much from that.”