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Flowers that have Changed the World of Food #1: Orchids

Monday morning was magical. I woke up in the middle of a snow-covered wood not having realized that it had snowed overnight. I looked out onto the ground, blanketed with a thick covering of pure white powder, and felt just like a kid who had slept with a spoon under her pillow – I didn’t have to go to work today – yeah! One by one my children and husband woke up to a similar feeling of elation and we all set about doing recreational activities as the snow continued to fall through most of the day.

Harlequin Phalaeonopsis

With winter’s green garden turned to white, I turned inward in search of life and found in our home a riot of botanical color bursting forth. Every windowsill had an orchid in bloom and there were massings of them in areas of the house where we have large picture windows. With colors as deep as the wine-dark sea to almost pure white, waterfalls of Phalaeonopsis and Paphiopedliums cascaded down before me. A few Doritinopsis and Miltonia still clung to their precious flowers long past their prime and a couple of Oncidiums lent a sickly sweet scent to the air about them – kind of like someone using too much perfume to try to mask an unpleasant odor.

I set about photographing some of them as I do every year and as I arranged and clicked my way through the collection I began to wonder how I could relate this aspect of my life to the blog. I thought immediately of the culinary contribution of orchids to world cuisine – namely vanilla flavor which is produced from the seed pods of the vanilla orchid – most commonly Vanilla planifola.

Vanilla was originally cultivated and used as a flavoring for foods by the Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican peoples. The first to cultivate vanilla were the Totonac people, who inhabit the Mazantla Valley on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the present-day state of Veracruz. In the fifteenth century, Aztecs from the central highlands of Mexico conquered the Totonacs, and the conquerors soon developed a taste for the vanilla bean. They named the bean tlilxochitl, or black flower, after the pollinated seed pod, which shrivels and turns black after it is picked. Then as now, vanilla flavor is introduced into food either by mixing in diced whole pods, using ground powdered pods or by soaking the pods in alcohol (now, often rum) to extract the flavor.

Phalaeonopsis – Big Pink Thing

Introduced into Europe and to Silk Road trade by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in the 1520s, vanilla was quickly adopted to flavor breads, desserts, puddings and occasionally meat dishes as well on the continent and across Asia. Vanilla remained rare and expensive until a way was found to cultivate it outside of Mesoamerica in the mid 1800s when a commercially viable method of hand pollination was discovered. Today, most vanilla is produced in Madagascar and Indonesia through the cultivation of the Vanilla planifola orchid which grows in long twisting and climbing vines. Other types of vanilla orchids cultivated for use in foods include Vanilla tahitensis grown in the South Pacific and Vanilla pompona grown in the West Indies, Central and South America.

The ease of growing and extracting the flavor of vanilla caused a revolution in the preparation of food. On the one hand, the flavor was used more widely than it had been in the past, but on the other, floral flavorings that were used prior to the introduction of vanilla were sometimes supplanted. For example, floral preparations like Fiore di Sicilia today used to flavor Pannetone and other baked goods, moved into more limited use because of the difficulty (and seasonality) of its production. Made from combining the essences of thousands of flowers – to no set recipe according to Chef Miles Collins – Fiore di Sicilia was out competed by the stronger and more easily produced vanilla – especially after global production of vanilla began in the 19th Century.

In Asia, vanilla – to some degree – supplanted the use of pandanus or screw-pine to flavor foods. Originally cultivated and used on the Indian subcontinent, pounded pandanus leaves can impart a vanilla-chai flavor to foods and is commonly used to flavor rice, and dessert dishes in this way in South and Southeast Asia. In Thailand, iced drinks from young coconuts with pandanus flavor are popular, and in Indonesia, pandanus leaves are made into ice cream like concoctions. Furthermore, the leaves appear more frequently in sweet puddings or custards based on sticky rice. The Thais use pandanus to wrap marinated meats that are then fried and there are many uses for pandanus flavor in fish and seafood recipes (I have a couple of delicious Cambodian recipes). It is interesting to note that pandanus or its extract kewra is still used to flavor seafood dishes in Southeast Asia, although in Tahiti – a vanilla producing country – it has been replaced by vanilla.

Vanilla Orchid Seed Pods

Today, thousands of metric tonnes of vanilla are produced and globally traded – with Asia now leading in the production. From humble Mexican origins, use of the vanilla orchid to flavor food has spread around the world. So, as you join me in tending to your flowering Phalaeonopsis, realize that it is one of a lineage of flowers that had an important influence on cooking and world cuisines as its travelled The Silk Road. (Words and photographs by Laura Kelley)