News day / THE tonka bean, a flat, wrinkled legume from South America with an outsize flavour that the federal government in the USA has declared illegal due to the presence of the compound coumarin. Nonetheless, it proliferates on elite American menus.

A tiny amount will contribute massive flavour; the taste of the tonka bean is linked strongly to its “scents,” as the tonka bean has many at once. The aromas of vanilla, cherry, almond, and something spicy—a bit like cinnamon. When served cold—say, in tonka bean ice cream—the taste is like a vanilla caramel with dark honey.

When warm, perhaps shaved over scallops, it moves toward spiced vanilla. Additionally, the aroma of the tonka bean shavings (it’s almost always shaved) is so affecting that it seems like an actual taste in the way that opium, which has no taste in the traditional sense, “tastes” like its rich, flowery smoke. It’s a taste we experience as we inhale its scent.

Coumarin has since been found to occur naturally in cinnamon, lavender, licorice, and a host of other commonly eaten plants—we would need to eat an unreasonable amount of tonka bean to fall ill. The shavings of a single bean is enough for 80 plates. At least 30 entire tonka beans (250 servings, or 1 gram of coumarin total) would need to be eaten to approach levels reported as toxic—about the same volume at which nutmeg and other everyday spices are toxic.

Tonka bean

So, if you have the chance of enjoying tonka bean for its mystical aromatic properties go ahead, shave a little into your batters or onto your warm seafood, and enjoy…you will be mystically transported to a higher level of gastronomy.

Tonka scented fish with fresh herbs

1 lb boneless fresh fish fillets cut into chunks

2 cloves garlic minced

1 tbs ground chives


2 tbs olive oil

1 red bell pepper seeded and chopped

1 small onion thinly sliced

1/2 cup sliced mushrooms

2 tbs all purpose flour

11/2 cups milk

1/2 tsp red pepper

1/2 cup white wine

1/4 cup parmesan cheese (optional)

2 tbs chopped Spanish thyme

1 tbs chopped chadon beni

1/4 tsp shaved tonka

Marinate fish in chives, garlic and salt for 30 minutes. Heat oil in sauté pan, add pepper and onion and cook until fragrant, 4 minutes. Add mushrooms.

Sprinkle on flour and cook until flour almost becomes liquid like or mixture is slack. Add milk and cook until mixture begins to thicken, add pepper.

Now add fish, turn gently and simmer covered for 10 minutes, uncover stir and add wine and cheese cook for another 5 minutes.

Remove from heat, stir in tonka, add fresh herbs and serve with lime wedges.

Serves 4

Tonka infused coconut flan

1 cup fresh coconut milk

4 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup full cream milk

1/4 tsp shaved tonka bean

1/3 cup granulated sugar

Beat eggs with coconut milk, vanilla, lime zest, milk and sugar until well blended, strain mixture, stir in tonka.


1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup water

Combine water with sugar stir and bring to a boil, cook until mixture turns a caramel colour, pour into 6 ramekin dishes. Pour flan mixture into caramel-lined dishes, place into a large baking tray and fill the tray half way with water. Bake until firm about 25 minutes.

Remove and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.

Invert before serving,

Serves 6

Don’t forget to check out my 30-Minute meals cooking class on April 28, e-mail me at [email protected] or call 3570927.

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