Vanilla can add umami (Japanese for savoury deliciousness — the fifth basic taste alongside sweet, sour, bitter and salty) to many dishes. It is produced from a variety of orchid that flourishes in the tropics.

In 2002, Bay of Plenty family Jennifer and Garth Boggis together with Jennifer's father John Ross, launched an aid programme to help Tonga recover from cyclone Waka. A small vanilla plantation was established in the remote Vava'u Islands. Twenty years on Heilala Vanilla has won numerous awards and is widely sought by international chefs including our own Peter Gordon. 

To make the essence, the vanilla beans are chopped into small pieces and undergo a gentle cold-extraction process for several weeks to ensure maximum flavour. Heilala now produces over 15 vanilla products other than just essence. Many are available from delis, some supermarkets or online.

Recently Heilala has been helping contribute to the relief effort which followed the Tongan volcanic eruption and tsunami, raising over $160,000 through special purchases and donations which go straight to their Tongan ‘family’. 
And if you’re wondering how vanilla can enhance savoury dishes, then try these ideas: in creamy sauces with seafood; in salad dressings; mashed potatoes; as a cure for salmon; beurre blanc; a chicken braise; sautéed onions; and in a lamb stew.


Delicious served as a light meal.

2 tablespoons olive oil 
250g (20 medium) raw, shelled and deveined prawns
3 tablespoons brandy
1 vanilla pod, halved lengthwise
3/4 cup cream
1/2 cup coconut milk
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a medium frying pan. Add the prawns and pan-fry on low heat until just cooked, about 3 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Wipe the pan clean. Add the brandy and vanilla pod. Heat gently for 2 minutes. Stir in the cream and coconut milk. Simmer until the liquid is reduce by half. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod into the cream mixture. Discard the pod.

Season the liquid, return the prawns to the pan and heat through for 1 minute. Serve over rice or noodles. Serves 2.


An excellent coffee accompaniment. Or serve with berries and whipped cream as a dessert.

3 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large vanilla bean 
1 1/4 cups sugar
250g butter, softened
2 eggs
1 cup icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 160°C. Line 2 baking trays with baking paper.

Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.

Halve the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds.

Place the sugar, butter and vanilla seeds in a large bowl. Beat for 1-2 minutes until light. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time, until well combined.

Beat in the flour mixture until combined. Cover and stand in a cool place for 10 minutes.

Shape the dough into 4cm diameter (30g) balls. Roll each ball in the icing sugar. Place on the prepared trays about 5cm apart.

Bake for 15-20 minutes until light brown around the edges. Stand the tray on a board for 5 minutes then transfer the cookies to a rack to cool for 15 minutes. Sprinkle with more icing sugar. Store in airtight containers. May be frozen. Makes about 35.


A moreish snack.

4 cups unflavoured popcorn
1/2 cup roasted unsalted cashew nuts
2 tablespoons vanilla sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1 tablespoon butter, melted 

Place the popcorn in a bowl with the cashew nuts. Sprinkle with the vanilla sugar.

Combine the melted butter and vanilla essence and stir into the popcorn mixture. Toss to coat Serves 4.


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