Pleasantly fragrant rich vanilla beans are the pods or fruits obtained from a tropical climbing orchid. Mayans used them to flavor chocolate drink centuries before Spanish first set their foot in Mexico in 1520. This highly prized bean is native to tropical rain forest of Central America and only recently spread to other tropical-regions by Spanish explorers. Botanically the plant is a perennial herbaceous climbing vine belonging to the family of Orchidaceae, in the genus: vanilla. Scientific name:Vanilla planifolia.
The vanilla plant has unique growth characteristics. It requires supporting tree or pole to grow in height. A matured vine bears deep trumpet-shaped flowers. The flowers open only for one day and are naturally pollinated either by the Melipona bee or long beaked humming birds. However, in cultivation, they are hand-pollinated and now grown commercially in Madagascar, Indonesia, India, Puerto Rica and West Indies. There exist three main cultivars of vanilla. Among them, Vanilla planifolia is the most sought-after bean worldwide.
The other species include Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitiensis (grown in Polynesian islands), although the vanillin content of these species is inferior to Vanilla planifolia. Unripe vanilla pods are harvested when they are 5-8 inches long and turn light yellow. They are then blanched briefly in boiling water, sweated and dried under sun over a period of weeks until they turn dark-brown and wrinkled. White crystalline efflorescence which is vanillin, the main essence of vanilla, appears inside in some of the superior quality pods.
Vanilla beans are one of the expensive non-pungent spices especially used as flavoring agent in a wide array of sweet-drinks and confectionaries. – Vanilla extract composed of simple and complex sugars, essential oils, vitamins and minerals. – The chief chemical component in the beans is vanillin. They also include numerous traces of other constituents such as eugenol, caproic acid, phenoles, phenol ether, alcohols, carbonyl compounds, acids, ester, lactones, aliphatic and aromatic carbohydrates and vitispiranes. – Ancient Mayans believed that vanilla drink was supposed to have aphrodisiac qualities.
No modern research study, however, establishes its role in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions. – Its extract contains small amounts of B-complex groups of vitamins such as niacin, pantothenic acid, thiamin, riboflavin and vitamin B-6. These vitamins help in enzyme synthesis, nervous system function and regulating body metabolism. – This spice also contains small traces of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, iron and zinc. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese and copper are used by the body as co-factors for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Iron is essential for red blood cell production and as a co-factor for cytochrome-oxidases enzymes.
Culinary uses Real vanilla is a pleasantly aromatic and very expensive spice only after saffron. In general, natural vanilla extract is made by finely chopping the beans and infusing them by dripping alcohol on the pieces. Alternatively, the beans are bruised and infused in milk or cream for making ice-cream and sweet puddings.