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Tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata [Aubl.] Willd.)


botanicalCoumarouna odorata
pharmaceuticalSemen Tonco, Fabae Tonco
零陵香豆 [líng líng xiāng dòu]
Ling ling xiang dou
CzechSilovoň, Silovoň obecný, Tonco semen
EnglishTonco bean, Tonquin bean
EstonianLõhnav dipteeriks, Tonkaoa puu, Lõhnav tonkapuu
FrenchFèves de tonka
Tonqa, Tonkah
Japaneseクマル, トンカビーンズ
Kumaru, Tonkabinzu
Korean통카 빈, 톤카
Tongga bin, Tonga
LatvianTonkas pupiņas
LithuanianKvapioji tongapupė
PolishTonkowiec wonny
RussianБоб тонка
Bob tonka
SlovakTonková fazula
SpanishHaba tonka, Cumaruna
Dipteryx odorata: Tonka drupe
Ripe tonka fruit

Dipteryx odorata: Dried tonca bean
Dried tonka beans; note the white coumarin crystals
Used plant part

Seed, also called a bean.

Plant family

Fabaceae (bean family).

Sensory quality

Sweet and hay-like, very strong. For other sweet spices, see licorice.

Main con­stituents

To liberate the coumarin, the beans are pro­cessed by soaking in alcohol (rum) for 24 hours and drying, whereby a fer­mentation process takes place. After­wards, the coumarin content may be as high as 10%. Coumarin crystals are visible below the epidermis of the seed.

Coumarin glycosides occur in several plants; on wilting or drying, coumarin is liberated. For example, coumarin contributes to the pleasant smell of fresh dried hay. Woodruff (Asperula odorata) has high coumarin content and is sometimes used to flavour alcoholic drinks in Western Europe and the US. It has come out of use, though.

Coumarin is toxic and causes serious though reversible liver damage in high dosages or if applied regularly over some time; toxic doses range around one gram, but some individuals are more suceptible. In rodents, coumarin has proven a carcinogen, yet this result does probably not hold for humans. It should be noted that some condensed coumarin derivatives act as strong antagonists to vitamin K and thus prevent blood coagulation; these compounds are used as rodenticides and as medicinal anticoagulants. Simple coumarin does not show this effect (but some molds can metabolize it to vitamin K blockers, which is why moldy hay may cause fatal poisoning in cattle). See also cassia for coumarin limits in German food laws.

Dipteryx odorata: Tonka drupes
Tonka tree with unripe fruits

Dipteryx odorata: Tonka foliagage
Tonka leaves


Northern South America (Guyana, Orinoco region). Main pro­ducers today are Vene­zuela and also Nigeria.


The word tonka is taken from the Galibi (Carib) tongue spoken by natives of French Guayana; it also appears in Tupi, another language of the same region, as the name of the tree. The old genus name, Coumarouna, was formed from another Tupi name of the tonka tree, kumarú. The latter also lies behind the name of tonka’s main constituent, coumarin.

The modern genus name is Greek (dis- prefix double- from dyo [δύο] two; pteryx [πτέρυξ] wing) and refers to the special two-winged shape of the fruits. The species name is a Latin participle (from odor scent) and means scented.

Selected Links Tonkabohnen Scents of Earth: Tonka Beans Rezept: Aromatischer Hefeteig Samuel Gawith’s 1792 Flake Tobacco ( Botanical information about tonka beans Cumarine in pflanzlichen Arzneimitteln (

Dipteryx odorata: Tonka tree
Tonka tree

Dipteryx odorata: Tonka tree
Tonka tree

The use of tonka beans (which was never high in Euro­pean countries), has de­creased over time, since coumarin is sus­pected to be poisonous and thus regulated in many countries. In spite of its hypnotic fragrance, the spice does not get mentioned often in cookbooks. Some books suggest adding minute amounts of it to the dough of cakes or cookies; sweets based on coconut, walnuts or poppy are another possible field of application. Lastly, tonka beans are sometimes suggested as a substitute for bitter almonds, especially in countries where usage of bitter almonds is restricted or prohibited by national food laws. Tonka makes an even better substitute for the Middle Eastern mahaleb cherry kernels.

Tonka beans make for a surprising, unusual alternative to vanilla in home-made ice cream, custard and soufflé. Typically, a few beans suffice to flavour one kg of these desserts. There are only few spicy recipes that make use of tonka beans, but Italian-style tomato sauce with tonka beans is truly great.

It is to be expected that tonka’s sweet, heavy aroma fits best to other sweet spices, like vanilla, cinnamon or saffron. Yet I do not know of any recipe that makes use of such a combination.

Around the turn of the mill­ennium, tonka beans en­joyed a sudden surge in popularity in much of Western Europe, parti­cular­ly in Germany. They are now well-establi­shed in gastro­nomy as a fla­vouring for liquid or semi­solid des­sert (usually such that have been prepared with vanilla before the tonka fashion started). One can see some irony in that, because at the same time, tonka-adulterated vanilla extracts of Mexican origin continue to plague consumers in the USA (in Europa, vanilla is cheaper than tonka). Another ironical twist is that at about the same time, the comparatively low coumarin content of cassia became a regular issue of public concern, making headlines every year shortly before Christmas.

At last, there is a non-culinary usage of tonka beans to mention: In the past, tonka beans were often used to flavour tobacco for smoking pipes. In our days, pipes have largely fallen into disfavour and become substituted by cigarettes (which are also on decline in many Western countries); tonka-flavoured tobaccos have, thus, become a rarity. Spices can also be used to flavour cigarettes, but I have never seen tonka being used for this purpose; instead, vanilla and peppermint enjoy modest popularity in Europe, whereas clove-flavoured cigarettes (kretek) are enthusiastically smoked in Indonesia.

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