Tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata) | Giovanni Ceccarelli

Tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata)

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The Tonka bean is the seed of the Dipteryx odorata (or Coumarona odorata), a plant belonging to the Fabaceae or leguminous family. This spice is used quite a bit in the kitchen and when mixing due to its particular flavor.

It is originally from Central America and the north of South America, where the rainforest is found: Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Guyana are the nations where you can find find it. In its areas of origin it is known by different names however, the most common are: Cumaru, Kumaru, Sarapia, Charapilla or simply Tonka.

tonka bean giovanni ceccarelli cocktail engineeringThe plant can reach up to 50 meters in height in its natural habitat, yet it hardly exceeds 20/30 meters if cultivated. The trunk can exceed a meter in diameter, the bark is greyish while the flower’s color is a mixture of white and lilac. The fruit is an elongated drupe, aesthetically it resembles a mango, it’s roughly 9cm long and 4cm wide. There’s a single seed inside this fruit: the tonka bean. When the fruit reaches maturation, the seed is extracted and dried; it is then dipped in rum for 24h and then dried again. During the second drying process the seed becomes black (externally) and small coumarin crystals are formed. Each harvest provides between 1 and 3 kg of beans.


In the western world, the tonka bean is used in both the food and cosmetics industry because its smell is sweet, warm, with hints of vanilla, almond, caramel and tobacco. Its taste has a bitter end.

Nevertheless, using this seed may pose a risk and should be used with caution because coumarin, an aromatic component of the Tonka bean, is a hepatotoxic substance and, for this reason, its use should be limited to small quantities. The name coumarin derives from “Coumarona odorata”. Click here if you’d like more info on the coumarin.

Each bean contains a variable percentage ranging from 1 to 3%, even if quantities have been recorded reaching close to 10%.

Even though it is unlikely that one can consume lethal doses, constant and prolonged consumption can cause liver and kidney damage. For this reason, its use in the food industry is strictly regulated. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment recommends not to exceed 0.1 mg/kg per body weight. Coumarin is also present in other vegetables, such as cassia.

The tonka bean has long been used successfully for cooking. French chefs use it to flavour sweets, ice creams, pastry cream, and salty souffles.

It also plays an important role when mixing due to its aroma and the fact that it is very easy to pair.

Inca sour

My advice is to grate a small amount over the drink that you chose to flavour. You can use a small grater, like the one used for nutmegs. The Inca Sour, the drink you see in the photo, is a drink I strongly suggest you try. Click here if you’d like to discover the recipe.

Clearly it cannot be used for just any drink: seeing floating powder on a entirely liquid drink is not the best of sights, whereas used on drinks with a foamy consistency, such as sour drinks, it becomes a perfect match.

It can also be successfully added over spumes or directly inside the siphon.

The Tonka bean is also ideal for flavouring alcoholic products, however, before proceeding, it is necessary to check with the competent authorities that this type of operation may be carried out in your bar. You shouldn’t exaggerate with the quantities (I use 1 gram/liter) for the reasons highlighted previously and for the fact that it can leave a bitter aftertaste. If you’re interested click here and discover the Bitter End recipe, twist on the Hanky Panky on drink list at The Noble Experiment by Jonathan of Vincenzo!

One last thing! The Tonka bean is part of my selection of spices for bartenders, SPEZIA VERSATILE! Click here if you’d like to buy it online or buy it in bulk from Vargros.

Happy mixing,

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