‘Where’s vanilla from?’ Random question planted seeds of Bangkok couple’s orchid empire

Pariya Junhasavasdikul was preparing to pop “the big question” to Viluda Pornputhasri in Europe when a much smaller, random one came up. It was during a long train ride from France to Switzerland that one of them wondered, “where does vanilla come from?”

“It turned out neither of us knew. So we googled and started to dive into it,” Pariya said of that fateful moment two years ago. 

Instead of stopping after the first Wikipedia entry gave them an answer (orchids!), the couple continued research vanilla after they got home, from the basics to its availability in Thailand and how to harvest it.

Not only did they learn vanilla prices were spiking due to a global shortage, they also learned there are few vanilla farms in Thailand despite its compatible climate. Today they are growing upward of 5,000 vanilla vines a few hours west of Bangkok.

Vanillian Inc.: Bangkok cannot possibly handle this much vanilla

But there’s another year or two before those orchids produce viable vanilla, and the couple’s already gone forward with the distribution part of their plan: Vanillian Inc., a cafe dedicated to all things vanilla in the Ari Samphan area. 

Vanillian Inc. Photo: Coconuts
Vanillian Inc. Photo: Coconuts

To show the world “vanilla” means anything but plain and boring, they have cooked up creative recipes and homewares utilizing all parts of the plant – from its beans to the tiny black seeds found inside and called “caviar.” Until their own supply is ready, they’re still importing the spice.

Pariya, an airline pilot, said the pandemic gave him time to shift his focus from flying aircraft to carefully tending each vanilla vine at their facility in Kanchanaburi province. 

A leafy, climbing orchid native to South and Central America, vanilla for centuries was grown throughout the tropics including in Madagascar and Indonesia. Today the spice is principally used for its sweet flavor and scent in food, cosmetics and aromatherapy.

Dried vanilla beans pods and their tiny black seeds, also called ‘caviar’
Dried vanilla beans pods and their tiny black seeds, also called ‘caviar’

Vanilla vines grow quite well in Thailand, Pariya said, as the plant drinks up high humidity, warmth and indirect sunlight. 

In their large greenhouse, Pariya and Viluda are growing vines from two species of vanilla orchid: Planifolia and Tahiti. The first creates a creamy, sweet and mellow flavor while beans from the latter provide a strong aroma and taste that is fruity and floral. Cultivation requires patience as the orchids take three to five years to bloom. 

Pariya Junhavasdikul and Viluda Pornputhasri's vanilla vines in Kanchanaburi province. Photo: Pariya Junhasavasdikul / Courtesy
Pariya Junhavasdikul and Viluda Pornputhasri’s vanilla vines in Kanchanaburi province. Photo: Pariya Junhasavasdikul / Courtesy

Thailand’s limited production combined with the fact vanilla recently became the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron suggests a strong business opportunity. 

But more than just make money from their cafe, the couple aims to sell their vanilla pods at more affordable prices than the imported beans currently sold at the cafe, where it’s THB180 per pod or THB535 for a three-pod package.

Vanilla beans sold at the cafe. Photo: Coconuts
Vanilla beans sold at the cafe. Photo: Coconuts

Imported vanilla is also used in Viluda’s unique vanilla-infused offerings. They include Vanillian Citrus (THB135), a vanilla shake that’s spiked with orange cream and cinnamon, and Vanilla 101 (THB195) that comes with bowls of vanilla caviar ice cream, vanilla pod ice cream, and a vanilla creme brulee tart. She teased an upcoming recipe with truffle, cheese, corn and, of course, vanilla.

Denying that he’s become a “vanilla expert,” Pariya said they are learning along with their customers. 

“Now I can pretty much differentiate pure extract vanilla from the imitation version of it in a single dessert dish,” said the pilot turned vanilla farmer. “I hope this cafe can educate more people about vanilla, too.”

Vanillian Inc. is located on Soi Phibun Watthana 2 in the Samsen Nai area. Get there by taking a motorbike or taxi from BTS Ari. It’s open 8am to 8pm every day except Monday. 

A display of vanilla-infused desserts. Photo: Coconuts
A display of vanilla-infused desserts. Photo: Coconuts
Noir Et Blanc (THB125), iced chocolate with vanilla foam.
Noir Et Blanc (THB125), iced chocolate with vanilla foam.
Photo: Coconuts
Photo: Coconuts

FIND IT:

Vanillian Inc.
Soi Phibun Watthana 2, Samsen Nai, Phaya Thai
8am-8pm daily, except Monday
Phone: 094-642-3694
BTS Ari

Related:

Vanillian Inc.: Bangkok cannot possibly handle this much vanilla

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CITY: BANGKOKCATEGORY: FOOD & DRINKSUB-CATEGORIES: F&B NEWS

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