10 Aug2006


by Marketman


Where to start on this spectacular seed pod borne from a climbing orchid… Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia or tahitensis) is one of the world’s greatest spices, and apparently one of the few indigenous to the New World. A plant native to Mexico, the Spaniards “discovered” this in the 1500’s, van2long after the Aztecs figured out that vanilla and chocolate were among the greatest flavor pairings ever created. The Spaniards took the beans back to Europe where they were an instant hit among the fooderati. In the centuries following this “discovery,” attempts were made to cultivate this orchid elsewhere but they mostly failed due to the peculiar manner in which the orchid is pollinated (either by a special bee or by a hummnig bird with a wicked long beak). It doesn’t help that the orchid’s flower only opens for one day and the window to pollinate lasts for just a few hours… Once botanists figured this orchid out, they have been able to cultivate the prized pods in several tropical climates, with Madagascar, The Seychelles, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Reunion, etc. now being the major source of this spice. Most of the cultivated vanilla now is of the planifolia variety, and it is more commonly referred to as Bourbon Vanilla.

I personally first came across live vanilla orchid vines when we got lost while touring the mountains/volcanoes in Bali, Indonesia. We stopped the car van4at a vast salak (snakefruit) plantation and as I inspected the salak trees out of curiosity, I noticed many vines trailing up fences of the farm. They had long yellowish pods and before I could confirm it, our brilliant guide says…yes, it is fresh vanilla! Wow. Wow. Wow. What’s the big deal? If you have only ever used bottled artificial vanilla and never a fresh vanilla pod, you are missing one of life’s essential food/spice experiences. The intensity of fragrance and the flavor is something that is hard to describe. And in case you are curious, artificial vanilla is synthesized from pulp waste, coal tar or coumarin…yecch, is right. (This last factoid according to The New Guide to Spices by Sallie Morris). Artificial vanilla doesn’t even come close to the real thing. The same book states that the word vanilla comes from the Spanish “vainilla” which means “little pod”. Most of the cultivated vanilla now is of the planifolia variety, and it is more commonly referred to as Bourbon Vanilla.

So you can imagine my joy when I spotted fresh vanilla beans for sale in the basement of Rockwell Mall at Cook’s Exchange, each pod nicely packaged and on closer inspection, apparently grown locally. The pods were impressively large and the labeling said they were of the variety “Vanilla Tahitensis” which comes from Tahiti. These pods, however, were proudly grown locally (where it did not say, but reader Millet says they have some in Davao). YAHOO, is all I can say. I brought van3 the pod home and for two weeks wondered how I would use it…in a crème brulee, to make some vanilla sugar, for a pie… aha, for my attempt at the ultimate buko pie! I used half the pod and the flavor was absolutely fantastic. Just slit the pod lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and add the hlaf pod to whatever you arecooking along with the seeds…remember to remove the pod later. I normally bring 2-3 whole beans back from trips abroad and I pay through the nose for them. In addition, I buy real natural vanilla flavoring which is wickedly pricey as well, particularly when compared to the artificial stuff… natural vanilla flavoring is made by dripping alcohol on chopped up pieces of vanilla pods. At about PHP160 per pod, it seems expensive but the same thing at Zabars in New York or Au Bon Marche in Paris might cost you 3 times as much! Rush out and buy your vanilla pods now! Encourage the local growers to grow some more! I also saw vanilla pods at the new Spice store at Market!Market! but I’m not sure if they were locally sourced.

P.S. After I posted this and read Joey’s comment, I thought I would add a photo or two… here van5are two types of vanilla in a bottle. On the left is Vanilla “Flavor” while on the right is Pure Vanilla Extract. The bottle on the right cost 15x more than the one on the left. The bottle on the right lists only water, alcohol (35%) Extractives of vanilla beans as their ingredients. The Vanilla “Flavor” bottle coyly lists only water, alcohol and natural and artificial vanilla flavors. How they make the artificial vanilla flavors is where the chemical voodoo is involved…



  1. joey says:

    They have them in Santi’s too, but I don’t know if those are locally sourced either…I have a question, how would I substitute the vanilla extract I would use in a cake recipe with the vanilla pod? Since the “cooking” comes at the end and not during preparation, and I can’t fish the pod out when the cake it already baked. Or do I have to make my own extract/liquid? I have tons of leftover vodka from my wedding, and you mentioned alcohol…and I think I read somewhere that you can make vanilla extract with vodka…would you know how?

    Sorry so much questions…I just think that it’s high time for me to undergo “one of life’s essential food/spice experiences” :)

    Aug 10, 2006 | 7:49 pm


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  3. Marketman says:

    Joey, the vanilla pod is used more to flavor liquids that then go into the desserts such as cream for ice creams, creme brulees and other custards, in sugar for flavoring other desserts or sometimes to coat doughnuts, etc. The vanilla extract used in say, cakes is actually made with the alcohol and it is a dark liquid. I don’t know the proportions of how to make it… My Alan Davidson book says that “vanilla extract, a hydroalcoholic solution which containsthe extracted aroma and flavors of vanilla…pure vanilla extract must contain at least 35% alcohol” – but I wouldn’t want to get this wrong or we would literally go up in flames…heehee. I suppose chopping up the pod and soaking it in alcohol might be a good experiment… other readers have any bright ideas?

    Aug 10, 2006 | 8:12 pm

  4. virgilio says:

    Have used fresh vanilla seeds for my cheesecake recipe and I must say you really can taste the difference. They’re so expensive and you cannot imagine my joy when friends who were recently on hols in Egypt came back with pods and pods of vanilla which they got for a song…almost! Before this, I would scrape the seeds out until the pods are no longer black :)

    Aug 10, 2006 | 9:00 pm

  5. Candygirlmd says:

    I think you can scrape in the seeds and add the pod in any liquid in the cake recipe….milk, water (you can simmer it first)… after removing the pod, you can add the liquid as instructed in your recipe. This is based on a vanilla freak’s request for a vanilla cake recipe that i read in Cook’s talk (Fine Cooking magazine’s cooking forum).

    Aug 10, 2006 | 9:49 pm

  6. joey says:

    Thanks Marketman and everyone else for the tips! :) I will try adding the seeds and pod into a liquid ingredient and simmering first, then cooling, before adding (thanks Candygirl MD!)

    Marketman, I am not giving up on the vodka! :) I’ll root around the internet too! And if it can’t make extract then worse case I have vanilla vodka and throw a nice cocktail party :)

    Aug 10, 2006 | 11:25 pm

  7. Apicio says:

    I find that flavour obtained directly from vanilla beans imparts its best effect when used in recipes that require no prolonged cooking such as in ice-cream, custards and crème pâtissière. For other applications, it seems that it does not really matter much what is used. You see artificial flavouring was developed specifically for these, cheaper and able to withstand adverse conditions such as high heat, long storage and careless cooking. Altogether distinc are synthetic flavourings which are actual molecular reconstruction of the natural scent’s structure which are mainly used where pure cheap large quantities are required such as in the detergent, cosmetic and home fragrance industry. Vanilla’s synthetic clone, vanillin was a darling useful chemical until it got a really bad rap when it was used to scent DDT.

    Aug 10, 2006 | 11:57 pm

  8. Jacob's Mom says:

    I’d done the vodka-vanilla pod thing and it’s really easy. Just slit the pod in half and put the pieces in the vodka. And it tastes great. I don’t do a whole lot of baking so my bottle has lasted me at least 2-3 years now.

    Aug 11, 2006 | 1:16 am

  9. Jacob's Mom says:

    BTW — I also put some in regular white sugar and it’s delicious with tea/coffee.

    Aug 11, 2006 | 1:17 am

  10. trishlovesbread says:

    Joey, it’s really as simple as Jacob Mom’s suggested. I was even more stingy with my vanilla pod. After scraping out the seeds and using them, I got a teeny bottle of gin (the kind you find in hotel fridges) and stuffed half of the scraped-out pod into it. The other half went into my sugar pot. Vodka would have been better, I’m sure. :-)

    Aug 11, 2006 | 1:46 am

  11. Mila says:

    I’ve bought pure vanilla extract overseas and in Manila and prefer it over the McCormick vanilla extract you can find in supermarkets. Since I’m no chemist and would probably blow up the cake if I tried extract the essence, I’ll stick to the liquid gold version when baking. But I do love using the pod in my sugar as well as letting it simmer over the stove just to make the house smell more than a home. Glad to hear the local farmers are getting in on the market.

    Aug 11, 2006 | 8:29 am

  12. Claudine says:

    Hi, Marketman! The vanilla beans we have at Spices ‘n Flavours are not sourced locally. We have two kinds. One is the organic vanilla bean from Madagascar. The other one is imported also but non-organic. We also have organic and non-organic pure vanilla extract.
    For those of you who love to bake, we have other organic and pure extracts like orange, lemon, almond and peppermint to choose from.

    Aug 11, 2006 | 10:15 am

  13. cupcakediva says:

    Sorry I’m confused, why would you add vodka and vanilla bean? Is it to make a vanilla extract? If so may I know the measurements, is it 1 large bottle of vodka+1 vanilla bean? Also, what is the best brand of Vodka can you suggest? Thanks a lot……

    Aug 11, 2006 | 3:55 pm

  14. Marketman says:

    cupcakediva, I actually don’t know the proportions…other readers chime if you know. But I suspect it should be a much smaller amount than a bottle…

    Aug 11, 2006 | 4:18 pm

  15. corrine says:

    I’ve been yearning to buy vanilla beans but it’s so expensive that still have to think of a perfect recipe to use it. I’ve asked a friend in Indonesia to bring home vanilla beans because I think it’s cheaper over there but he said he only knows Mr. Beans. grrrhhh!

    And yes, I’m as confused as cupcakediva, why do you mix gin or vodka and vanilla beans? to preserve them?

    Aug 11, 2006 | 8:37 pm

  16. Marketman says:

    cupcakediva and corinne, joey up top asked if she could make her own extract with vodka and a vanilla bean…that’s all the discussion was about…just buy the pure vanilla extract instead…though I personally want to make my own extract some day!

    Aug 11, 2006 | 9:54 pm

  17. stethacp says:

    read somewhere to make your extract at home… just put half of a vanilla pod in 3/4 cup vodka and store in an airtight container. put in a dry and dark spot for 4-6 months. and you should give it a shake every once in a while.

    Aug 12, 2006 | 7:44 am

  18. millet says:

    you’re right MM, some of the vanilla vines in Eden are planted near the dragon fruit vines. and contrary to what most people expect, the farm does not smell of vanilla. you need to open up the pods for the aroma to come out.

    Aug 12, 2006 | 7:52 am

  19. juls says:

    mm, is there a local grower of the vanilla orchid? i’m curious to know.

    or even a vanilla farm?

    Aug 13, 2006 | 12:41 am

  20. Marketman says:

    juls, according to Millet in Davao, there are farms or plantations that grow the vanilla commercially there. So I guess someone has access to the vanilla orchid and is propagating it…

    Aug 13, 2006 | 6:03 am

  21. millet says:

    yup, that’s at Eden Nature Park in Eden, Toril, Davao City. I’m not sure if the vanilla beans are distributed locally, though.

    Aug 13, 2006 | 8:59 pm

  22. Emmanuel C. Talag says:

    The vanilla beans (locally-grown), together with the bottled cuttlefish ink which you featured recently in this website, are available at Terry Selection. They have two stores: one in the basement of The Podium and another at Karrivin Plaza in Pasong Tamo Extension.

    Aug 14, 2006 | 8:41 am

  23. goodtimer says:

    I just read in an old issue of Cook magazine a recipe for vanilla extract: Split 5 vanilla bean pods in half and drop them in a sterilized glass bottle. Fill with 2 cups vodka and let stand in a cool place. Alcohol will turn dark brown and ready to use in about 1 month. The longer the beans stay in the alcohol, the stronger the flavor. You may also add more vodka to cover beans after using up the initial batch. Low-grade vodka may be used. Rum and brandy works as well but a neutral spirit like vodka is best.

    Aug 18, 2006 | 12:02 am

  24. arence delos reyes says:

    i wanted to buy dragon fruit cutting, i heard one this reliable source that you are selling those thing…please let me know…feel free to contact me anytime..0917-577-8286..


    Apr 17, 2007 | 7:51 pm

  25. Marketman says:

    arence, I don’t have any dragon fruit plants nor do I sell anything…

    Apr 17, 2007 | 7:55 pm

  26. artisan chocolatier says:

    In order to meet USA FDA standards, pure vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction and 35 percent alcohol.

    Vodka is a “natural” for extraction since its already has at least 35% alcohol by volume, has no strong taste (like brandy) and is all ready to go. All you have to do is split in half, chop, and drop the the corresponding amount of pods into the bottle. You will have to make it sit (give it a shake once in awhile) for at least a month, but its best to wait for at least six months before use. And just like fine wine, it gets better with age up to 5 years.

    I buy my pods (long 5-7 inches) wholesale and use them for all my formulas. I also keep in stock (at any given time) about 2 kilos of sugar that I infused with vanilla pods and this is what i use when my formulas call for sugar.

    Nov 1, 2007 | 9:16 am

  27. Tatoosh says:

    Do you think that the vanilla beans are still available occasionally? I visit Manila occasionally, but I don’t know where Rockwell Mall or Cooks Exchange. Is Cooks Exchange a store? I really want to find vanilla beans here in the Philippines if possible, even if I have to go to Cebu or Mindanao. Thanks for any pointers.

    Jan 19, 2009 | 12:36 pm

  28. arence delos reyes says:

    we sell dragon fruits cutting and fruit itself…we got a plantation in bukidnon under bounty fresh food inc…pls contact me at my mobile 09175073004

    Jan 27, 2009 | 1:34 pm

  29. Magic Uli says:

    Hello guys. I live in the south Province of Cebu Isalnd, in Badian, near Kawasanfalls. I want have my own Vanilla, can somebody tell me where i can buy vanilla orchids on Cebu Island? or where in Cebu i can find Vanilla the true one not liquid..
    Thanks for your help guys

    May 12, 2009 | 1:19 pm

  30. reader says:

    where do i get pure vanilla extract here in manila, and how much would it set me back? haha! thanks :)

    Jun 17, 2009 | 7:26 pm

  31. Marketman says:

    reader, I have actually never seen pure vanilla extract for sale in Manila stores… but they might be available and I just haven’t found a source. They run $8-12 for a small bottle in the U.S. Magic Uli, sorry, I have no idea where to get the actual orchids.

    Jun 17, 2009 | 8:45 pm


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