Know Your Spices

Vanilla: The quintessential fragrance

Ironically, Vanilla which is a sublime expression for plain and boring is the second most expensive spice in the world!   

Its vine-like stems come from orchids of the genus Vanilla and grow to about 300 feet. It gets its name from vainilla, an acronym for Spanish word vaina which means pod. The essence is mainly derived from pods of the Mexican species V. planifolia.   

Setting it apart:  

Just like any fruit, Vanilla too originates from a greenish-yellow flower. The flowers blossom only once a year, giving the farmers a short window to pollinate it. If they lose the time, the flowers wilt and die.   

The flowers grow into a fruit which grows to a 6-to-10-inch-long pod. Each pod contains tiny black seeds. 

When pollination of the vanilla plant was exclusively the job of Melipona bees, a 12-year-old slave Edmond Albius changed it all. He discovered he could hand pollinate the orchid. Today Vanilla is hand-pollinated, a method used globally. It is an assiduous effort done flower by flower, and as extracting the fragrance is also labour-intensive, the vanilla spice is costly.  


The farmer waits patiently in anticipation for the pods to ripen and darken before collecting them. Then these pods are thoroughly cleaned, sorted and matured for a minimum of one month. The risk of pods wilting is high at every stage of this multi-level production. This clearly shows the time and expertise required for vanilla pods to hit the market. Top-quality Vanilla comes only from good vines and expert production methods. 

Hot and humid climate with moderate rainfall of more than 1500mm is best to cultivate vanilla vine flowers. The best temperature for cultivation is 15–28°C. The soil has to be loose with loamy texture. It must be drained well. A slight slope helps to drain out water. Good quality manure ensures good yield. Mulching is essential. Much of the mulch should be planted at the base of the vine. Soil pH of 5 is indicated an optimum.


Indonesia and Madagascar grow two-thirds of the world’s vanilla supply. The Tahiti pods are thick with a rich floral fragrance and best used in perfume. The most revered Bourbon vanilla comes from French-occupied island, Réunion. It is fruity and buttery coming close to Madagascar vanilla which has a creamy flavour. Mexican beans are slim with a strong sweet, smoky note. Other cultivars are China, Turkey, Tonga and French Polynesia.

A healthy cheer:  

Vanilla is more than just a central component in many desserts. It has sterling nutritional qualities which merit its rightful place on your kitchen shelf. The spice has adequate amounts of antioxidants which aid the body to repair from the cellular level and reduce risks of heart diseases, diabetes and other health hazards.

Its use as a beauty component will see your hair shine and skin glow. It promotes anti-ageing activities while it heals wounds and aids in losing extra weight.

Nauseous? Vanilla helps in relieving the horrible feeling while it boosts digestion and improves dental health.

Twist in your dish:

Vanilla as a spice is popularly known to enhance any dessert. It blends with any fruit or component and lends itself to many hit recipes. Yet this spice has another spirited side as it makes its way to some instantly hit savoury dishes.

Ooh, very savoury!

“Add a hint of sweetness in your savoury dish and make it dreamy and yum as Vanilla can be used in savoury dishes to add sweetness without adding sugar. Try adding it to green smoothies, vinaigrette, stews or even mashed potatoes”, says Chef Pankaj Bhadouria, Host and Chef of Indian Food Classics, Zee Zest.


  • Leave leftover pods in sugar to infuse it with the vanilla flavour. You can also blitz the pods and drop it in the jar.
  • Green and fresh vanilla beans have no aroma. They have to turn dark brown.
  • It contains a vast number of different flavour and fragrance components. It is easy to produce the synthetic vanilla flavour. Hence vanillin can be made from eugenol, a component of clove oil. It can be made from lignin, a by-product of the wood pulp.
  • The famous fragrance comes from vanilla beans.
  • The aroma of this spice has powerful calming qualities.
  • This ‘plain’ but precious spice is worthy of celebration.

Click here to buy Vanillla extract

1 comment on “Vanilla: The quintessential fragrance

  1. Vijaya Murthi

    Very interesting & exotic ! Thanks .

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