Botanical Name: Vanilla fragrans

Family: Orchidaceae

Hindi Name: Vanilla

Vanilla is native to Central America, and has a long record of pre-Colombian usage. The Mayas and the Aztecs used vanilla to flavour a special drink prepared from water, cocoa beans and spices. Today, it is cultivated in Mexico, Brazil, Madagascar, Tahiti, Comoros, Reunion, Indonesia, Guatemala, India, etc.

In India, Vanilla cultivation is popular in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu since the early 1990s. In these states, vanilla is mostly grown by small and marginal growers in their fields, inter-planting with other crops.

Vanilla from Reunion and Madagascar is characterised by the most intensive, balanced and somewhat 'dark' flavour. The Mexican vanilla is softer and has a fresher aroma. Tahiti vanilla, rarely available, has a more floral vanilla fragrance that stands apart from the other types.

Vanilla was first used in Europe to flavour drinking chocolate. Vanilla is sweet, aromatic and pleasant. Spanish vanilla is a diminutive of vaina, meaning, 'sheath, pod', motivated by the sheath-like shape of the fruit. Vanilla is a tropical orchid cultivated for its delicate, pleasant flavour. Vanilla pods are the fruits of the only orchid to produce an edible substance.

Vanilla pods are long, 17-25 cm, thin and filled with beans that are virtually flavourless in their unripe state. The pods are cured for several months until vanillin crystals are emitted. The fragrance from the vanillin permeates the inside of the pod that eventually turns dark brown. The beans are then scraped from the inside of the pod and are ready for use. Most of the fragrance resides in the seeds and the oily liquid surrounding the seeds.

The composition of the whole bean is as follows:

  • Moisture: 25.85-30.93 %
  • Protein: 2.56-4.87 %
  • Fatty oil: 4.68-6.74 %
  • Volatile oil: 0.0-0.4 %
  • Nitrogen-free extract: 30.35-32.9 %
  • Carbohydrates: 7.1-9.1 %
  • Fibre: 15.27-19.6 %
  • Ash: 4.5-4.7 %
  • Vanillin: 1.48-2.9 %
  • Resins: 1.5-2.6 %
  • Calcium: 19.7 %
  • Potassium: 16.2 %
  • Sodium: 6.7 %
  • Phosphorus: 9.5 %
  • Iron: 0.3 %

Vanilla additionally contains sugars, fats, cellulose and minerals, and high water content.

The three most common type of beans are the Bourbon­Madagascar (thin and sweet), the Mexican (thick and rich), and the Tahitian (the thickest but the least flavourful). Vanilla extracts can be stored in an airtight container indefinitely if kept in a cool, dark place. Vanilla beans should be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, in an airtight jar, and refrigerated. Vanilla ice­cream made with natural vanilla extract or vanilla beans is comparatively rare, and, of course, somewhat more expensive.

Synthetic vanillin may also appear in the extract itself. In Mexico, there is even vanilla flavoured cigarettes! Western cooks use vanilla for a variety of sweet dishes, cookies, cakes, drinks, sweet sauces and vanilla ice. Pure vanilla extract is prepared by steeping cured vanilla beans in alcohol.

Vanilla is also used in sweet continental puddings and gruels, in milk-based drinks and dry pastries. Strudel in Germany and Austria are sometimes served with hot vanilla-scented sweet sauces. Vanilla sugar is used in the manufacture of chocolates.

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