Wild Tonka Bean
Tonka, a Kalinago word, a bean traditionally used in the preparation of cacao potions to ignite passion, bolster courage and attract luck. My great-grandmother used tonka to flavour her pot before cooking. Obeah women conjure up essential oils and seductive fragrances – smells encountered wandering bush at dawn, following scent trails spiriting out of undergrowth into a giant kumaru, flush with fruits and tales whispered in a forgotten language.
The strange and beautiful tonka bean – pronounced Tanka bean by my Trini elders – is celebrated in contemporary cuisine; gaining popularity with top patissiers, often preferred over vanilla, for elaborate desserts. In North America, restaurants are banned from serving tonka in any of their creations; forcing some chefs – micrograter in hand – into a life of patisserie banditry for the sole purpose of perfuming their dishes.
Suspended high under canopy and sky, the mystical fruit holding a swollen bean, cocooned inside. Generations of children and countryside fauna wait up to indulge on its ripe pleasures. Kumaru can live up to a thousand years or more. Its fruit, strikingly similar in colour and texture to ripe mango, and due to its sweet, tempting flavour – reminiscent of a rum-glazed doughnut – children would suck the fibrous fruit dry, leaving a mohawk-like crown around the seed pod. With their stringy young teeth and sticky little hands, they’d cast the capsules into a heap, where the seeds would ripen over months, allowing time for the almond-shaped bean to firm. Once dried out, a little shake, a little rattle, the pod is at last, cracked, revealing a glowing bean, brunette and wavy. Its beach-brown interior, prime and ecstatic.
On our small Caribbean island, our looming kumaru tress are limited in number; our yields are therefore low, but high in quality and intensity. Coupled with our passion for pure experience and unadulterated production practices, the Beni Tonka Wild Tonka Bean exists in all its complexity, on a level, in a world, entirely of its own.
Spun into shampoos to prevent hair-loss, used in the bush to treat snake bites, remedy contusions, relieve coughs and asthma, applied to reduce pain and fever, and to stimulate menstrual flow, Trinidad’s wild tonka beans have been cherished by native peoples for millennia.
Tonka bean oil would often be dropped into ear canals to relieve earaches and combat infections. Early peoples praised the bean’s cardio-tonic abilities as well, curing various heart conditions. Tonka played an invaluable role in the guts of our ancestors, alleviating digestive issues; and, as a diaphoretic, a catalyst for the occasional detox.
Our wild tonka beans have stimulated blood flow in the pelvic area and uterus for over 3000 years of Trini menstrual cycles. “Women use emmenagogues to stimulate menstrual flow when menstruation is absent for reasons other than pregnancy, such as hormonal disorders or conditions like oligomenorrhea (infrequent or light menses).”
Traditional bush medicine still used to date recognize the importance of tonka bean as an antiseptic, as it is successfully used to treat ear aches. The beans are soaked in rum to treat cuts, bruises, rheumatism, and even snake bites.
Tonka is said to have anti-spasmodic properties. By signaling the body to increase secretions, the expectorant property works by propelling infectious matter out of the body through mucous, and lubricates the lung passageways. Clearing chesty coughs and relieving asthma.
Coumarin – the active compound in tonka – can be used medicinally as an anti-coagulant. Anti-coagulants are substances that prevent blood-clotting. Such substances are found naturally in leeches and other blood sucking parasites.
As a fixative, tonka bean acts as a natural gripping or “fixing” agent, stabilizing base perfumes and increasing longevity on the skin. Tonka bean oil also acts as a strong anchor to many floral, fruity scents – patchouli, rose, lemon, sandalwood and lavender – extending lifetimes and enhancing fragrance tones.
Our wild tonka beans are not harmful unless, in the unlikely event, too many are consumed – the same applies to spices such as nutmeg or cinnamon. An individual would need to consume about 30 tonka beans in one sitting to end up in the nearest clinic. All in all, one must respect the tonka.
Store your tonka beans in their tightly-sealed containers, away from direct sunlight and extreme temperatures – as one would with other precious spices.