Issue 12: Vanilla

by thomandaimee

There is no any other more common flavour than plain old vanilla. A good partner in crime to many other foods, vanilla complements a wide range of ingredients such as coffee, chocolate, custard, other spices such cardamom and cinnamon, and even with seafood. Have a slice of warm apple pie, moist chocolate brownie or even a glass of coke? Top a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it, and you’ll have a luscious treat. I was one of those who didn’t really care about vanilla (too boring). Dependable, familiar, old-fashioned – the number of synonyms you can use on vanilla is endless. Vanilla was just too common.

Here’s where the oddity appears: vanilla is extremely expensive. Everyone might have easy access to vanilla-flavoured foods, but no one really understands how decadent the common vanilla is. Of course, we are talking about the real stuff. The sticky, almost pungent, brown little twigs with tiny little caviar-like seeds in it. Behind saffron, it is the second most expensive spice in the world. And it’s not difficult to understand why.

Just do a little read on how vanilla is harvested and the growing conditions needed, you’ll probably treasure vanilla a lot more than you do now. I remember watching documentary on BBC (channel-flipping brings me to strange places) and there I was, learning how vanilla was produced. The very first vanilla beans were discovered by Totonac Indians in Mexico, but yet again, it was the adventurous Spanish who shared this very special ingredient with the rest of the world. As usual, world goes gaga over it and everyone wants a piece of it. But they just couldn’t grow the damn bean in their own backyard. Up until the mid 19th century, Mexico had monopoly in the market of vanilla. It wasn’t that the Europeans weren’t enterprising enough. They just forgot to bring the bees back with them. (The bees in Mexico just know how get the orchids fruiting.)

The person the modern world needs to thank is Edmond Albius, a slave who found a way to pollinate the vanilla orchids by hand (a method still used today). Without him, a scoop of vanilla ice cream probably costs $1000. Just remember he died in poverty and probably never tasted vanilla ice cream before. So, remember Edmond Albius when you eat anything vanilla. Okay, enough documentary talk. Anyway, other than the fact that pollinating the flowers are so time consuming, the beans have to be harvested by hand, killed (submersion in a hot bath), sweat, dried and conditioned. The whole curing cycle is six months worth of laborious-intensive work (and I’m excluding growing and harvesting).

We managed to get hold of some vanilla pods of assorted variety. Like wine, the flavour of vanilla is often affected by its surroundings such as soil and growing conditions, and curing methods. You can just look at how different each variety look from the other. Some beans are broader than the other, some are tinged with copper or bronze.

The most well-known and probably most popular is the Madagascan (or Bourbon) vanilla beans. Rich, creamy and sweet flavour, its versatility lends itself to many recipes. While the Madagascan bean had a smooth fragrance, the original vanilla – Mexican beans impart smokey, complex and almost spicy notes. If you take a sniff, it’s as though you get a punch straight in the nose. But the King of vanilla is no doubt the Tahitian beans. With an intense fruity, floral aroma that is almost like a mix of cherry, chocolate and licorice, Tahitian vanilla is exceptional in custards and creams. (I personally love smelling its intoxicating scent. Jo Malone needs to make a one.)

The big three are not the only varieties available in the market, there are many other beans that you can sample. The Ugandan bean is almost like the Mexican with its bold aroma without the sharp smokiness. It has a very earthy raisin-like flavour that works well in rich and chocolate desserts. But the Indonesian beans beat both the Ugandan and Mexican in terms of intensity. Its woody flavour might sometimes be deemed too strong, but they are perfect for recipes made with lots of butterfat or cream.

The Tongan beans are another bold-flavoured vanilla that strangely works well in not only sweets, but savoury dishes (use them for dressings and marinades). They also stand up very well against chocolate with its unique fig-and-bark characteristics. Last but not least, the Indian vanilla beans are very similar to Madagascan beans with its sweet (almost too saccharine for my liking) and woodsy flavours. Comparatively plumper in size, they contain a very large amount of seeds.

(Now, my nose is clogged with smelling too much beans.)

It might seem rather confusing to decide which beans for what dish, but really, there is no strict rule. Whatever works for your palate. However, once you start using real vanilla beans, it will be tough to go back to your convenient vanilla extracts. Of course, we still depend very much on our bottled extracts and bean pastes if time was a constraint. Buying vanilla might seem like a luxury but no part of the vanilla will be wasted. The pods can be used to make vanilla sugars, extracts or infused liquors (it is actually the pod that imparts most of the flavour, not the caviar seeds).

After tasting the real stuff, vanilla did not appear faceless or unmemorable. In fact, I think I have a new found respect for the little guys. But I do think I need to lie down for awhile – too much of a vanilla overdose.