Back of the House

Achatz Dishes on Illegal Tonka Beans

Grant Achatz talks about tonka beans.
Grant Achatz talks about tonka beans. Photo: courtesy of The Atlantic

Yesterday The Atlantic investigated the strange plight of the tonka bean, “a flat, wrinkled legume” from South America, which has the ability to instantly lend dishes with an intense vanilla aroma. The spice is all the rage in France, but it is, of course, illegal in the United States. This should come as a surprise to anyone that owns the Alinea cookbook, where toka beans are used to make a tonka bean cream for a sponge cake. In fact, Grant Achatz admits to The Atlantic that the FDA actually visited the restaurant in 2006 to rummage through the spice cabinets in search of the substance. “Nobody knew,” Achatz explains in a video interview. He had been simply ordering it from a spice distributor, with no knowledge that it was illegal. So, what does this magic bean actually do?

According to The Atlantic, tonka bean are a major source of coumarin, a chemical compound which has been illegal in this country since 1954. Apparently it was banned after food manufactures started dumping incredible amounts of it into products like cream soda. It was shown to cause liver problems in rats, but scientists claim that the dosage would have to be extreme: “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.”

Check out the video over at The Atlantic. Of course, now that we know it’s illegal and apparently delicious, we want some. Has anyone seen it around? We promise we won’t tell…

The Tonka Bean: An Ingredient So Good It Has to Be Illegal [The Atlantic]
Raiding the Spice Cabinet [Gapers Block]

Achatz Dishes on Illegal Tonka Beans