The fragrant tonka bean is a native of South America, a product of the cumaru tree (dipteryx odorata). They have a lovely vanilla-almond-slightly fruity aroma, and in hoodoo traditions these sweet-smelling beans are used for love and money magic. It’s said that you should work with them in only in odd numbers. They can be whispered wishes and put under your pillow for dreaming and then thrown into running water for the wishes to manifest. It is also advisable to put one in your wallet to snuggle up to your bills and encourage them to multiply as well as smell nice.
Culinarily, the tonka bean is much-used by the French, particularly in desserts. Generally they are grated over dishes much like truffles or to infuse cream (tonka ice cream recipes abound on the internet). In the United States, the FDA has banned the use of tonka beans in food sold for consumption which is why some European amari and liqueurs are unavailable this side of the pond.
As to why this is, apparently very high doses of a chief component of tonka beans, coumarin, can cause liver problems. This was discovered in the 1950’s when extraordinarily large amounts were fed to mice. The problem with this is that the amount needed to be harmful would need to be much more than anyone would ever want to eat. Coumarin is also present in other spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon, but think of the amounts of these substances that you use. Tonka bean is a spice after all, not a food in itself. Therefore, I choose to do as the French do and dare to enhance my gustatory repertoire with the magical little tonka bean.
Tonka beans are not illegal, it is merely illegal to serve them in a restaurant or include them in a product sold for consumption. I happen to work down the street from Kalustyan’s, the famed spice-and-many-many-other-things merchant, so I went there to try my luck in purchasing some. I was despondent when I found the place on their alphabetically-organized shelves where tonka beans should reside was an empty void, but I asked an employee and he fetched me a bag from a high shelf behind a counter. Wattleseed was also relegated to that high perch – I wonder what nefarious reputation landed them there; the internet did not enlighten me.
Because the tonka is a New World bean and because the weather is finally warming and it’s scent is vanilla-almondy, I decided it would be an excellent ingredient in a tiki drink. And why not the king of all tiki drinks, the Mai Tai? Thus, I decided to make a tonka-infused simple syrup to replace the orgeat, an almond syrup, in Trader Vic’s esteemed beverage.
To do this, I used a microplane to grate most of one bean into a pot containing half a cup of sugar and half a cup of water and gently heated it until the sugar dissolved. I then turned off the heat and let it infuse for about 3 hours, after which I strained it through a coffee filter and fine-mesh sieve into a bottle and popped it into the refrigerator.
The Tonka Tai
1 oz lime juice
.5 oz dry curaçao
.25 oz tonka bean syrup
.25 oz simple syrup
1 oz dark Jamaican rum
1 oz aged rhum agricole
1 sprig mint
Pour all ingredients into a shaker that is one third full of ice. Make a wish and concentrate on it as you shake vigorously and say:
Great spirit of the tonka tree
Please grant this wish unto me
Pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass and garnish with a sprig of mint.
The taste is subtle with the syrup I made. For more tonka flavor I might use .5 oz tonka syrup and just omit the simple. Should you make your own, you should, of course, adjust to your own taste.