Every once in a while there is a new flavour for the tongue to trip over. Today, let's talk tonka beans. These are thumb-size pods with a soft wrinkled flesh and a thick almond-like seed. Botanically, they are members of the legume family, but these beans are as different from a lima or a fava as a brilliant sunset is from a cloudy day.
Tonka beans smell of vanilla with strong hints of cinnamon, cloves and almonds. Cheaper than vanilla pods, they were commonly used as a vanilla substitute and are often added to perfumes, soaps and pipe tobaccos. Tonka beans are grown in the Caribbean and harvested after they have matured for about a year. They are reputed to prevent blood clotting. In witchcraft they are said to foster courage.
The aroma is sublime. It is best released by warming a bean or two in a liquid before the liquid is added to a recipe. You could also leave one or two beans in a light rum and then use the alcohol to flavour a dish. The caterer Phillipe de Vienne has imported some for his own use and sells them through Les douceurs du marché in the Atwater Market.
We havent heard much of tonka beans, because they are illegal in the USA. Tonka contains coumarin, which gives this bean its vanilla-like odor. As an oil, coumarin is toxic. But this is also true of the pure oils and extracts of many foods and edible plants. Just try eating pure chili oil or orange oil essence. They are commercially processed and available. Both burn the mouth and can do serious damage if more than a few drops are ingested; but that doesnt stop us from using raw chilies or orange rind in our cooking.
Similarly, used as a simple bean to flavour dishes, tonka beans are not harmful. I keep a small jar of them in the cupboard. I plan to use them to flavour custards and cakes. Their aroma is much richer than vanilla, almost rum-like in its intensity and that is before I let them sit in any spirits.