Viva la vanilla
Vanilla, with its non-pungent flavour, is the world's favourite spice
Ah, you flavour everything; you are the vanilla of society
VANILLA IS native to Mexico and is the only edible fruit in the orchid family. Natural vanilla is second only to saffron in cost. The Totonacas of ancient Mexico were perhaps the first to cultivate it. The Totonacas believed the goddess Xanat transformed herself into the orchid to be with her earthly lover, a Totonacan youth.
After conquering the Totonacas in the 15th Century, the Aztecs demanded and got a yearly tribute of vanilla beans. In 1520 AD, one of Hernan Cortez's Spanish conquistadores saw Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, drinking chocolate flavoured with vanilla, pepper and honey. Cortez was curious about the drink served in golden goblets, but the Aztecs refused to give up the recipe. The Spaniards found it easier to wrest away gold from the Aztecs! In the end, Cortez had to torture the royal head chef for the recipe.
Within a few decades, Spain's factories were turning out vanilla-flavoured chocolate, but Queen Elizabeth's chefs were the first to use vanilla as a stand-alone flavour instead of as a backbone for chocolate. Today, the world's favourite non-pungent spice flavours ice creams, colas, cocoa, puddings, biscuits, cakes, chocolate, candy, wine, liquor, chewing gum, milk, custard, pastries, tobacco and even cattle feed.
Vanilla's ubiquity makes it synonymous with "lacking distinction"; in computer lingo, "plain-vanilla" means "lacking special features or qualities". But for hundreds of years, vanilla was rare and grew only in Mexico because the Melipona bees that pollinate it would not survive elsewhere. Without hand-pollination and synthetic vanillin, you wouldn't have vanilla ice-cream in every shop today.
Vanillin, the main compound in vanilla, is structurally similar to capsaicin in pepper, eugenol in cloves and zingerone in ginger. Natural vanilla is expensive and contains hundreds of other compounds in addition to vanillin. Synthetic vanillin, however, is pure and cheap, but not as subtle in taste. Vanillin is also used in the manufacture of drugs for Parkinsonism and hypertension.
Vanilla is a major compound in aromatherapy. Heliotropin, one of the 250 chemicals in vanilla, has a soothing effect that can help claustrophobic patients endure procedures like MRI and CT tests.
The Aztecs and the European colonists used the vanilla bean as an aphrodisiac and nerve stimulant. German physicians, until the late 18th century, used it to treat impotence. The Mayans and Aztecs used it for sexually transmitted diseases, respiratory illnesses and upset stomachs. Interestingly, Coca Cola was once a common home remedy for upset stomachs because of it its vanilla content.
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