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Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia Andrews)


botanicalVanilla fragrans
pharmaceuticalFructus Vanillae
BasqueBainila, Banila
雲呢哪 [wàhn nēi lá], 香莢蘭 [hēung gaahp làahn], 香蘭 [hēung lán], 香子蘭 [hēung jí lán]
Wahn nei la, Heung gaahp laahn, Heung lan, Heung ji lan
梵尼蘭 [fàn ní lán], 香莢蘭 [xiāng jiá lán], 香蘭 [xiāng lán], 香子蘭 [xiāng zǐ lán], 香草兰 [xiāng cǎo lán], 香草 [xiāng cǎo]
Fan ni lan, Xiang jia lan, Hsiang ts’ao lan, Xiang lan, Xiang zi lan, Xiang cao lan, Xiang cao
EstonianHarilik vanill, Vanillikaun
FrisianFanylje, Fanille
GreekΒανίλλια, Βανίλια
Vanillia, Vanilia
IndonesianPaneli, Panili, Vanili
Kannadaವ್ಯನಿಲ್ಲ, ವೆನಿಲಾ
Vyanilla, Venila
LatvianSmaržīgā vaniļa
LithuanianVanilė, Kvapioji vanilė
PolishWanilia płaskolistna
Tamilவனிக்கோடி, வனிலா
Vanikkodi, Vanila
Thaiวนิลา, วานิลลา
Wanila, Wanilla
VietnameseCây vani, Quả vani
Cay vani, Qua vani

Vanilla planifolia, tahitensis: Vanilla beans
Vanilla beans: left regular Bourbon vanilla, right Tahiti vanilla
Vanilla planifolia: Vanilla flower
Vanilla flower and unripe fruits

Photo by Jim Reddekopp

Vanilla tahitensis: Ripening vanilla fruits
Ripening vanilla fruits

Used plant part

The ripe fruit (pod), fre­quently (but wrongly) called bean. Most of the fragrance resides in the seeds and the oily liquid sur­rounding the seeds.

Plant family

Orchidaceae (orchid family).

Sensory quality

Sweet, aromatic and pleasant. For other sweet spices, see licorice.

Vanilla from Réunion and Madagascar (Bourbon type) is characterized by the most intensive, balanced and somewhat dark flavour; lesser priced is Mexican vanilla, with its softer and fresher aroma.

Tahiti vanilla, rarely avail­able, stems from a closely related species (Vanilla tahiten­sis, thought to be a hybrid of V. pompona and V. plani­folia); it has a more floral vanilla fragrance that stands apart from the other types. It is often regarded as inferior, but unusual might be the better word.

Main constitu­ents

Fresh vanilla beans con­tain vanillin gluco­side, an odour­less sub­stance. Only after har­vest, that glyco­side is broken by a labour-inten­sive fer­men­tation process, yielding the aromatic free vanillin (4-hydroxy 3-methoxy benz­aldehyde). The fermentation involves β-glucosidases.

The fully fermented fruit contains about 2% vanillin, depending on provenance (México 1.75%, Sri Lanka 1.5%, Indonesia 2.75%); in vanilla pods of exceptionally good quality, the crystallized vanillin may be visible on the surface in the form of tiny white needles (called givre, the French word for frost).

Vanilla pompona: Antilles vanilla
Guadeloupe-Vanilla, sterile plant

Besides vanillin (85% of total volatiles), other important aroma com­ponents are p-hydroxy benz­aldehyde (up to 9%) and p-hydroxybenzyl methyl ether (1%). Besindes the teo aldehydes (vanillin, p-hydroxy benz­aldehyde), the corresponding alcohols and carbocyclic acids may also be present depnding on fermentation and storage details; the acids imply aroma loss because of their lower volatility.

A number of trace components (2-phenylethanol, various phenols, e.g., guajacol, p-cresol and creosol, and heterocyclic compounds of furane or pyranone structure) do significantly improve the flavour; about 130 more compounds have been identified in vanilla extract (phenoles, phenol ether, alcohols, carbonyl compounds, acids, esters, lactones, aliphatic and aromatic carbo­hydrates and hetero­cyclic compounds). Two stereo­isomeric viti­spiranes (2,10,10-trimethyl-1,6- and methylidene-1-oxaspiro(4,5)dec-7-ene), although only occurring in traces, also influence the aroma.

Conventional wisdom has it that the quite dif­ferent fra­grance of Tahiti vanilla is due to vanilline (1.7%) and addi­tional con­tents of piperonal (heliotropin, 3,4-dioxy­methylen­benz­aldehyde) and diacetyl (butandione). This view, however, has been chal­lenged when an investi­gation of Tahiti vanilla beans from different sources found no piperonal, but only vanillin, anisyl alcohol, anisic acid and small amounts of both 3‑anis­aldehyde and the more common 4‑anisaldehyde. (Zeitschrift f. Lebensmitteluntersuchung und -forschung A, 199, 38, 1994)

Vanilla additionally contains 25% of sugars, 15% fat, 15 to 30% cellulose and 6% minerals. Water content is unusually high (35%).

Vanilla tahitensis: Tahiti vanilla plant
Sterile Tahiti vanilla plant
Vanilla pompona: Guadeloupe vanilla flower
The flowers of Guadeloupe vanilla are particularly beautiful


South East México and Guate­mala. Today, the most im­por­tant ex­por­ters are Mada­gas­car and Ré­union (formerly called Bourbon), even before México; there is also some production in East Africa. In Asia, Indo­nesia is the most success­ful producer.


The word vanilla derived from the Spanish name of the spice, vainilla, and is a diminutive of vaina sheath, vagina, pod (from Proto-Indo–European WAG hollow), perhaps motivated by the sheath-like shape of the fruit. The species name, planifolia, refers to the striking flat shape of the leaves.

The names of vanilla are almost identical in practically all languages of the world. Within Europe, there is little orthographic variation, e. g., Basque bainila, Polish wanilia and Latvian vaniļa. Examples from Asia include Arabic al-fanilya [الفانيليا], Farsi vanil [وانیل], Tamil vanikkodi [வனிக்கோடி], Indo­nesian panilli, Canto­nese wahn nei la [雲呢哪] and Man­darin fan ni lan [梵尼蘭].

Quite interest­ingly, the native names of vanilla (e. g. Náhuatl tlilxochitl black flower) have, to my knowl­edge, not been trans­ferred to any other language after the conquest. Also, descriptive foreign-language names are almost completely missing, although designations in the spirit of aromatic bean would rather suggest themselves. Yet only Chinese has such names, for example xiang jia lan [香莢蘭] which I cautiously intrepret as orchid bearing fragrant beans.

Selected Links

Indian Spices: Vanilla ( Ilkas und Ullis Kochecke: Vanille ( via A Pinch of Vanilla ( The Epicentre: Vanilla The Epicentre: Vanilla Feature Medical Spice Exhibit: Vanilla (via (via KCJ Vanilla Product Page Transport Information Service: Vanilla The Spice House: Vanilla Beans Selection (also Tahiti) Vanillin Heliotropin A Chocolate Timeline A History of Chocolate ( via Schokolade und Kakao The genetic diversity of Criollo cacao and its consequence in quality breeding ( via Product Information Vanilla ( Tahaa – La Maison de la Vanille ( Rezepte mit Vanille Mexican vanilla information and selling (

Vanilla planifolia: Vanilla flower
Vanilla flower

Vanilla planifolia: Vanilla (plant)
Vanilla plant (sterile shoot)
Vanilla planifolia: Vanilla shoot
Vanilla shoot
Vanilla planifolia: Artificial pollination of vanilla flower
Artificial pollination of vanilla flower
Vanilla planifolia: Vanilla inflorescence
Vanilla flower and ripening fruits
Vanilla planifolia: Vanilla plant
Vanilla plant
Vanilla is native to Central America and has a long record of pre-Columbian usage. Both the Mayas and, later, the Aztecs used Vanilla to flavour a special drink prepared from water, cocoa beans and spices: chacau haa (or chocol haa) in the Mayan and cacahuatl in the Aztec tongue (Náhuatl).

Mayan chocolate, as is still drunk in southern México (Yucatán), Guatemala and Belize, is often spicy, containing chiles and other native (allspice, annatto) or imported (black pepper, cinnamon) spices. Sweet­eners (sugar or honey) are possible but in no way mandatory. The drink is enjoyed hot or cold, but in any case it is whipped such that it becomes foamy; the foam is considered the most delicious part.

The Aztecs drank chocolate mostly cold and often used honey to get a sweet product; in our days, of course, cane sugar is more common. Aztec chocolate may contain all aromatics mentioned in the previous paragraph, and more (e. g., paprika or Mexican pepper leaves); for cultic purposes, the deeply red colour brought by addition of annatto was highly esteemed. When Hernán Cortés forced the Aztec ruler Moctezuma to grant him an audience on November 14th, 1519, he was the first European to try chocolate; less than three years later, the great Aztec capital Tenochtitlán had been shattered to pieces, and the Aztec empire had ceased to exist.

Vanilla was first used in Europe mainly for the same purpose as in America before: To flavour drinking chocolate, a very popular drink among the century European nobility. European drinking chocolate was almost exclusively sweet and might use a lot of additional flavourings, e. g. anise, cinnamon, but also exotic animal products like musk and ambergris; the main European contributions to chocolate was, however, the use of milk instead of water, which culminated much later, at the end of the century, in the production of milk chocolate bars.

Chocolate aside, vanilla is used for a large number of other sweet dishes in Western cuisine; its usage is salty foods is very uncommon. Vanilla is essential for a large number of cookie recipes, for cakes, sweet continental puddings and gruels, and even for milk-based sweet drinks; moreover, dry pastries (e. g., Strudel in Germany, Austria and Czech Republic; see poppy for more) are sometimes served with hot, vanilla-scented sweet sauces. The most important, almost proverbial, application is, however, vanilla ice cream. The largest part of vanilla-flavoured industrial products do not contain true vanilla, but the much cheaper synthetic vanillin, the main (but not single) constituent of vanilla aroma.

Vanillin can be easily pro­duced from wood wastes of the paper industry; the same chemi­cal re­action, by the way, lies be­hind the vanilla aroma of some wines aged in wood barrels (barrique). Pure vanillin does have a scent reminis­cent to vanilla, but it lacks the subtle flavour of the true spice. It can, there­fore, not sub­stitute vanilla in high-quality products. In no product this is more obvious than in vanilla ice cream, which (apart from rare exceptions) has dis­appointing flavour. Vanilla ice cream made with natural vanilla extract or vanilla beans (you can recognize this by the tiny black seeds in the ice cream) is comparatively rare, and of course somewhat more expensive.

Vanilla planifolia: Ripening vanilla capsules
Ripening vanilla pods
Vanilla planifolia: Vanilla shoots
Vanilla shoots

At a first glance, ice cream seems a typical product of indus­trialized Western countries, since its production and transport calls for significant technical facilities. Yet, even Alexander the Great enjoyed iced desserts, and several Roman emperors are reported to have adopted this custom. Chinese Em­perors of the Tang dynasty had ice-cooled deserts based on buffalo milk flavoured with camphor to lessen the dis­comfort of hot summer days, and similar recipes were later developed by the Indian Mughal dynasty (kulfi [कुल्फ़ी]). Cooling was achieved by snow transported to court from distant mountains, which is a considerable logistic success.

Contempo­rary ice creams owe their smooth and fluffy texture not only to various emul­gators, but also to tiny gas bubbles trapped in the semi­solid matrix. This feature dis­tinguishes the soft ice of our days from the half-frozen sherbets of Nero or Jehan Gir.

Vanilla planifolia: Vanilla leaf
Vanilla leaf

Ice creams are produced in a huge variety of different flavours; most popular in Western countries are chocolate, fruit flavours (of the plants men­tioned on these pages, lemon, orange, pome­granate, and mango) pepper­mint, vanilla, tonka and a wealth of nuts, e. g., hazelnut, almond or coconut. Less main stream, but excellent are ice creams produced from aromatic herbs (lemon verbena, basil, laven­der) or spices like cinna­mon, car­damom and nut­meg. In some coun­tries, ice creams with floral scent are popu­lar, e. g., rose in Iran or kewra in India; Thai­land and Indo­nesia have ice from pandan leaves to offer. The saffron ice cream sold in Indian tourist centers I found almost addictive (best was saffron–pistachio, for those planning to spend their vacation in Mount Abu/Raja­sthan). There are, however, other flavours of ice cream described in the literature which I mention without being able to imagine how they might taste: Reports tell about garlic and chile ice creams, a challenge for the stronghearted!

Vanilla planifolia: Vanilla flower and unripe pods
Vanilla flower and ripening fruits

Vanilla planifolia: Sterile vanilla plant
Sterile vanilla plant

Different to most other spices, the pro­cessing of vanilla is rather com­pli­cated, be­cause fresh vanilla pods do not have any taste; the vanillin is bound as a glyco­side and must be set free by enzy­matic reaction, normally in­duced by a sequence of blanching (Bourbon) or steaming (México) opera­tions. This, and the need of manual pol­lination outside México, makes vanilla one of the most expensive spices.

Vanilla is not frequently combined with other spices, although saffron or cinnamon are probably worth trying. Tonka beans, mahlab cherry stones or pandanus leaf extract make interesting alternatives for vanilla; another possibility are scented flower distillates (rose, kewra).

Everything expensive gets adulterated and faked — vanilla is no exception. First of all, synthetic vanillin is an obvious choice to spice up beans of low quality, or beans that have been extracted to yield the expensive vanilla extract (won by macerating vanilla pods in a mixture of water and alcohol). Synthetic vanillin may also appear in the extract itself. Especially in México, tonka bean extract shows up regularly in vanilla extract. See also tonka bean for vanilla-flavoured cigarettes.

Two related vanilla species (V. pompona, also called Guadeloupe vanilla or Antilles vanilla from the West Indies and V. tahitensis from Tahiti), yield vanilla beans with a significantly deviating flavour. Up to the recent past, both species were considered inferior to V. planifolia, and they were sometimes abused to adulterate vanilla products. Of course, unusualness is not necessarily a sign of low value, and the two exotic vanillas might be used in their own right.

In the first decade of the 21. century, Tahiti vanilla experienced a sudden rise in popularity and application range, particularly in Western gastronomy. Many of the more expensive restaurants now prepare traditional vanilla desserts with Tahiti vanilla, e. g., panna cotta, crème brûlée or simply vanilla ice cream. There is a curious parallel in the increasing use of tonka beans, which are often employed in the same etablissements for the same purposes.

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