It’s Illegal to Cook with Tonka Beans in the U.S., but Chefs Do it Anyway

Has it really been over 10 years since FDA G-Men raided Alinea, demanding Grant Achatz give up the tonka beans used in his famed sponge cake with dried cherries and vanilla?

Back then, it was a surprise that these little tropical legumes with a sorcerously beguiling aroma (seriously—they are used in witchcraft) were illegal. Especially since the beans, which grow on the cumaru tree in South America, were in heavy rotation among fine dining chefs around the world, particularly in France. Stateside, that was about to change, as the feds made it known that the naturally occurring compound coumarin (which causes liver damage in lab animals) was present in unacceptable levels in tonka, and so the beans were banned. Never mind that coumarin is found in acceptable foods like lavender, licorice, strawberries and cherries. Or that if you wanted to die by tonka bean, you’d have to eat them by the fistful, and that chefs using tonka beans usually don’t use more than a few flakes to get all the complex cherry almond-vanilla-amaretto essence they want.

The flavor of tonka beans is tied up in the aroma, and is somewhat hard to substitute.

“It's a really complex flavor of vanilla, almond, clove, cinnamon, and some type of amaretto, some nuts as well," says Eddy Leroux, chef de cuisine at New York’s Daniel.  

Food scientists are working on creating a legal alternative. Terra Spice used to sell whole tonkas until the FDA told them to knock it off, so they put their food chemist on the case and created Tonkaroma, a coumarin-free tonka-flavored extract. “I try to describe it as vanilla bean with Christmas spice,” says research chef Chad Miller. “There’s a vanilla base and all the other flavors are added on top of that. It sells very well, but sometimes it takes convincing because chefs want a true product. However, it is banned by the FDA, so our hands are tied.”

Despite the small hurdle of illegality, tonka beans, which look like black raisins and have been used to flavor perfume, tobacco, beer and spirits, have found a place in more than a few restaurant kitchens by chefs who find their aroma and flavor irresistible.

The beans are an ideal match for custards, ice cream, chocolate and even red fruit, and the fact that they have gone underground domestically doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared. “We’ve had access to them for a long time,” says a distributor of rare and unusual comestibles for chefs, who asked to remain nameless. “And we’re real selective about where they go. It’s one of those things—especially with the vanilla market going sky high—there’s definitely a big demand.”

But you don’t need to have an in with a special supplier to get your hands on tonkas. Anyone with an Internet connection and a credit card can order them.

That’s how Samantha Mendoza of Killen’s Steakhouse in Pearland, Texas, gets them for her pastry kitchen. The beans’ complex aroma takes to the fats in custard and ice cream like a velvet glove. And chocolate is a natural foundation on which tonka dances a tarantella. Mendoza like them both. She shaves tonka into the melted chocolate she used to make a feuilletine crunch bar paired with almond chocolate mousse. But she also likes to make a basic tonka bean ice cream, shaving the bean into her custard to infuse it, then straining it out.

“I just kind of let the flavor of the tonka bean be the star of the ice cream itself,” she says. “It’s got that cherry-almond flavor, and if I really, really want it to pop out, I’ll use just a little bit of almond extract.”

For pastry chef Jimmy MacMillan, red fruit is an undersung application for tonka. He’s paired a tonka-infused crème brûlée with lychee rose gelato, minted strawberries and meringue, then shaved a bit of tonka on top. “You’ll see [tonka] paired with chocolate sometimes, and it’s always good,” he says. “But if you put it with red fruit, you get all the nuances, so in this case, strawberries and lychees are mild enough that they don’t get in the way. Lychee has that perfume that enhances that lightness of the tonka bean and the tonka bean just kind of flies off the top with that.”

But McMillan says don’t sleep on tonka for savory dishes, pointing out duck with cherries and coconut risotto as ideal vehicles for tonka’s magic. “Like vanilla, [tonka] isn’t really a sweet or savory ingredient,” he notes. “It’s just an enhancement, so it’s going to bring out the background, like Madagascar vanilla does with anything, and not make it sweeter.”

Chicago chef Jared Wentworth agrees on tonka’s suitability with savory ingredients. He simmers split tonka beans in grapeseed oil, blends the oil with sea salt, then drizzles it over burrata dusted with onion ash. At The Greenhouse in London, Arnaud Bignon also pairs it with dairy, garnishing salmon with fresh green peas, Buddha’s hand paste and tonka bean cream. “I like to use the tonka bean with the pea because the pea is sweet and the tonka is sharp,” Bignon says. “The taste of tonka bean is suave. The mix of these two components gives a long aftertaste and matches perfectly with the salmon.”

Tonka also takes well to spirits. At Arcane Bar in Manchester, England, Gareth Walsh created The Illicit Parisienne, a mix of Courvoisier VSOP, Cherry Heering, mezcal, cocoa and vanilla syrup, with tonka bean grated atop an egg white float. “Having [tonka beans] on top of the cocktail means that the guest gets a huge hit of the cherry, vanilla and spice on the nose,” Walsh says. “This sets the standard for the drink, and then once you have that scent, when you then sip the cocktail, all the flavors are there to add to—and work alongside—the tonka beans.”

Leroux uses them in both a spirit infusion and a sweet-savory dish. For a menu last winter at Daniel, he rehydrated dried apples, pears, raisins, papaya and mango with a tonka bean syrup to garnish foie gras, which was then flambéed tableside with tonka-infused vodka.

"When you smell it once, you can not forget it; it's so distinctive. It's so addictive,” he says of the beans. “It's something I really love.”

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