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Vanilla is a food flavoring agent derived from the Vanilla orchids which originally belong to Mexico. The flavoring attribute mainly comes from the bean or the seed pod of the plant. The processed beans of vanilla are slender, deep brown, pleated and around 8 inches long. The pliable and tough beans are covered with a crystal frosting or givre, which are rich in vanillin, the component responsible for making the seed flavorful. The fermented seed pods are called fine vanilla while the uncrystallized pods with a lighter color, shorter length, stronger flavor and mildly bitter taste is called woody vanilla. All aromatic beans of the vanilla plant are packed with small black seeds. Most vanilla recipes use vanilla extract, which is equally flavorful and aromatic as the pods. Currently, there are three global cultivars of this flavoring pod plant and these include V. planifolia or Madagascar-Bourbon, V. pompon and V. tahitensis. In Italy, this flavoring agent is known as vaniglia whereas in Spanish speaking countries, it is known as vainilla. In French and German, it is called vanille. Some of the best known vanilla recipes are lemon and vanilla posset, vanilla fruit compote and vanilla ice cream.

History of Vanilla
The English word - vanilla has originated from the Spanish word – vainilla. Vanilla is native to Mexico, where it used to be cultivated by the Totonaco Indians. As per the Totonac mythology, the tropical orchid of vanilla was born when Princess Xanat fled with her mortal lover into the forest and were later captured and executed. It is believed, the vanilla vine grew from their blood. Later, the Aztecs conquered the Totonaco Indians, who in turn were overthrown by Hernando Cortez. Cortez plundered the vanilla pods and brought them to Spain. Mexico remained the chief producer of this spice until the mid 19th century, after which the French entrepreneurs began to ship these flavorful beans to the islands of Mauritius and Réunion, where a 12 year old slave Edmond Albius discovered how to hand pollinate the beans. From there, the beans travelled to Comoros Islands and Madagascar, which now produce the maximum vanilla in the world. Following a tropical cyclone sometime during the late 1970s, the vanilla prices steeped and dipped later by 70 percent, but after the year 2000, the prices shot up again.

Culinary Uses of the Vanilla
Natural vanilla can be used in different forms in cooking. While in most cases, the extract is used, in others, powders, essences and salt are used. All these forms of the spice are commercially produced. Vanilla recipes use vanilla powder is prepared by blending ground pods with starch, sugar and other ingredients while the extract is made by mixing synthetic vanilla with glycerol or alcohol. Vanilla essence on the other hand is prepared by mixing natural pod extract or artificial vanilla and has a stronger flavor. The salt is made by blending the bean pieces with French Fleur de Sel. Much often, the flavoring in food is achieved by cooking the aromatic pods in a liquid preparation. Most vanilla recipes include ice creams, puddings and baked foods such as pastries, frosting, cakes, cookies and muffins. Sometimes, this flavoring agent is also used to complement chocolate, cocoa, coffee and caramel.

Popular Vanilla Recipes
Meyer Lemon and Vanilla Bean Marmalade, prepared with vanilla beans is one of the best known vanilla recipes. The Sicilian Vanilla Ice Cream or Gelato di Vaniglia is one of the traditional favorite vanilla recipes that again uses the flavored beans and is prepared with ingredients like whole milk, heavy cream, sugar, egg yolk and cornstarch. The well-known vanilla recipe - Sea Bass with Vanilla Froth includes sea bass fillets flavored with vanilla pods. Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Buttercream is another favorite, which uses the spice extract for the cake and beans for the buttercream.

Preferable Cooking Methods for Vanilla
The seeds of vanilla can be scraped and used directly in cooking. However, prior to that the pod must be soaked in alcohol for a stronger flavor. But, the extracts are easy to use and they should be usually added at the end of the cooking so that the high heat doesn’t lead to aroma loss. For cooking, where the spice needs to be added mid way or at the very beginning, beans or powdered forms of the spice work best. Some of the best tasting vanilla recipes are the ones where the spice has been combined with lemon myrtle, allspice, cardamom, cassia, cinnamon, ginger, lemon verbena, lavender, pandan leaf, mint, poppy seeds, nutmeg, wattle seeds, sesame seeds or liquorice mint.

Nutritive Value of Vanilla
Since the historical times, vanilla has been considered an excellent remedy for fevers and an effective aphrodisiac. The spice is rich in essential oils, which makes it a popular aromatherapy remedy. The vanillin present in the spice has antioxidant properties, which keeps oxidant damages away like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. It can also prevent and treat cancer. Besides these, vanilla is also effective in treating sickle cell anemia.

Vanilla Buying and Storing Tips
When buying vanilla pods, one should go for flexible pods with smooth oily surface. The beans are available in different forms all round the year and should be purchased from trusted sources to avoid adulterated products with artificial flavorings. A vanilla pod can store for as long as 3 to 4 years. The beans can be stored buried in caster sugar and used after 3 to 4 weeks. Washed beans should be dried and stored in airtight containers.

Non- Food Uses of Vanilla
Vanilla is popularly used in manufacturing perfumes, soaps and other cosmetics. The spice is hugely popular in the world of aromatherapy. The ingredient also finds use in liqueurs and cigars.

Vanilla: Trivia
1. The best quality vanilla is believed to be the ones produced in Mexico and Madagascar, while the varieties produced in Indonesia and Tahiti are considered weaker.

2. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron.

3. Substances trademarked as vanilla flavor are often synthetically prepared from clove oil, coal tar and waste paper pulp, which is forbidden in many countries.