Beni Tonka bottles the sweet and heat of T&T

Creator of SOKA pepper sauce and Oya cocoa liqueur, Beni Tonka, hears soca music in his head each time he mixes a concoction. He described the process of making the sauce as one where no specific measurement of ingredients is followed and compared it to playing soca by ear—an approach he adopted from his Aunt Cynthia from Moruga, Trinidad.

“Scotch bonnet, habaneros, citrus, garlic, salt, oil—it ferments a little. It’s that vibe, that tradition pulsating through the pepper sauce.”

“It began upon my arrival in Trinidad for the first time.” He first visited in 2017, when he was 27, after discovering his TT heritage in his mid-twenties.

He was determined to explore and dig for more from the other half of his roots.

“It was Carnival Monday; a great start to the adventure. One thing I noticed in the Caribbean is that at every roti shop there was some bottle with a glowing substance. It vibrates inside the vessel holding it.”

Tonka said the vast Caribbean cuisine and flavours fast-tracked his reintroduction to his Caribbean heritage; when it came to him manifesting the inspiration for creating his own sauce, the intention was to make it as his father and Aunt Cynthia did.

“I chose their pepper sauce because it was the most flavourful I’d ever tasted. People were raving about it—so I had to take it back to Germany.”

He thought about it for a long time—the idea of getting the sauce from his aunt in TT for sale in Cologne, Germany, then ultimately, the world.

“But I couldn’t fathom putting her through that at her age. I took a step back and I still had about 100 bottles that I had stretched from what I brought back from her, and those were sold right away.” Tonka couldn’t foresee the continuation of the pepper sauce business plan—so he started selling cocoa.

The cocoa was a facilitator, which felt like another way of connecting him to TT. On the second day of his visit, his Aunty Eileen had given him some treats. “She brought me coconut bake, guava jam, and this shaky enamel cup with the pitch lid and out of it was this crazy aroma. Familiar, but super crazy—and it consumed me more than I consumed it. I thought I had to take this back with me, too.”

He sold the cocoa in Germany for the next two years, making attempts to produce it in a way that he believed would pay homage to the Caribbean way, with a kind of resilience—similar to the way the pepper sauce was produced. “Similar to how my ancestors processed it. Even when I visited for the first time, it was still being done the way the ancestors did, which took me by surprise.”

Tonka now has cocoa being produced in TT, making a cocoa liquor named OYA, after the Orisha/African deity, warrior goddess for the winds of change. It is made in collaboration with German-based Suderman and Spirits bars. “My dream is to have the liquor also manufactured and sold in TT.”

In 2018, he was contacted by people requesting the sauce. “It happened so much. And when people tell you they put it on everything and ask for more, if a bell doesn’t go off in your head, something must be off.” That created the resurgence of the sauce, sending him back into the kitchen to make it, ensuring the magical flavour matched the taste approved by his aunt.

He drew inspiration for his products from the vibrations of Trinidad—the flora, fauna and culture.

He is the son of Kirk Louison, founder of local publication, Moruga Chronicle, who Tonka said plays every percussive instrument he knows including the drums and pan. The unravelling of culture he saw during his first three months in TT, including the music, characters like blue devils and moko jumbies, fanned the flame that led him to eagerly seek to bottle some of that magic.

Until he was inspired to share a piece of TT, he didn’t see himself being involved in the food industry. “I’m a maker of things. I create based on my mood, feelings and sensory interactions.”

The concept of minimalism flows into all he does. It’s evident in the presentation of Soka and Oya. “The form of something invites me to delve into it—taking away the non-essentials that don’t inspire wonder.” This approach to packaging allows the colour of the sauce to be the main feature. Tonka, who studied art history and environmental philosophy in university, said this was as a result of him being a natural storyteller.

He wishes to expand the brand, having it distributed throughout the region. He laughed before saying he may also dabble in making doubles.

We anticipate more creations from this adventurous entrepreneur inspired by TT. Soka and Oya can be bought via his website