Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Vanilla planifolia

By Jeremy Trombley

Vanilla is currently one of the most popular spices around the world and is used in a wide array of foods and cuisines including as a flavoring for dairy products, beverages, and desserts. Its unique aroma and flavor have made it a prized commodity for centuries.


Vanilla is obtained from the cured pods of the Vanilla orchid, which is native to Central America, and grows on the edges of tropical forests. It is pollinated exclusively by humming birds and melipone bees, and produces long yellow or green pods that are used for the spice. These pods are harvested before ripe and immersed in hot steam, then allowed to ferment for up to four weeks. This causes the pods to turn black from oxidization, and creates a glaze of glucose and vanillin crystals on the surface which gives the spice its unique aroma and flavor.


Vanilla was first used by the Aztecs combined with chocolate to make a fragrant drink called tlilxochitl. In the 16th century it was brought by Spanish explorers to Europe, where it was used only in conjunction with cacao for many years. Hugh Morgan, the apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, was the first to recommend vanilla as a flavoring on its own.

Early in the 19th century, attempts were made to establish the plant in other places besides Mexico. The French brought it to Réunion in 1822, Mauritius in 1827 and Madagascar in 1840. However, the mechanism for pollination was unknown, and wouldn't occur unaided outside of Mexico. However, Albius, a fromer slave in Réunion, developed a method for artificially pollinating the plant, and it became possible to cultivate the plant elsewhere (Davidson). Today, most of the world's vanilla supply is produced in Madagascar. Most of the vanilla produced today is used to produce vanilla extract, which is popular in the United States, but bean vanilla is still preferred in Europe. Synthetic vanillin is also common, but lacks the “'pure spicy delicate flavour' and the 'peculiar bouguet' of natural vanilla” (Davidson, 821).


Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 1999.

Johnson, Sylvia A. Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans: How the Foods of the Americas Changed Eating Arou. 1st ed. Atheneum, 1997.