Orchids are rock stars in the flower fancier's world, a vast family of plants producing a dizzying variety of striking blossoms. Although they're less well known for function than beauty, orchids also have a role to play in the culinary world. No orchids are toxic to humans, so technically they're all edible -- but a few are genuinely valuable to chefs and home cooks alike.
Only one orchid has significant commercial value as a food crop, but it's very significant indeed. Genuine vanilla comes from the seed pods of a specific tropical orchid, Vanilla planifolia, which is native to the New World but since the colonial era has been grown as far away as Tahiti and Madagascar. The blossoms must be hand-pollinated in most locations, and the resulting long, thin bean-like seed pods must be fermented to bring out their full flavors. Enthusiasts with a suitable climate -- or a greenhouse -- can sometimes grow their own, but it's a challenge.
Orchid blossoms make a spectacular addition to sweet or savory dishes; their varied shapes and colors range from delicate pastels to incendiary oranges and reds. They're not a flavoring agent, as peppery nasturtiums and pungent herb blossoms are, but lend a delicately crisp texture -- like most salad greens -- and in some cases a light, mild flavor reminiscent of cucumber or melon. Use the blossoms plain or sugared as a garnish on cakes and desserts, or use them liberally to create strikingly colorful salads.
Subsistence Food Flowers
In much of the tropical world, including Latin America, Africa and Asia, various other parts of the orchid plant are put to culinary use. The buds, leaves and tender stems of many species are treated as vegetables in their native regions, and eaten as subsistence foods. The starchy roots of orchids, which give the plants their name -- "orchis" is the Greek word for testes, which the orchid's roots resemble -- are also cooked and eaten by those living in wide swathes of Africa, including Tanzania, Malawi and further north in Ethiopia. In some regions, pressure from a hungry population has come to endanger especially popular species.
Picking and Choosing
Genuine vanilla contains over 100 flavor compounds, according to food-science writer Harold McGee. Artificial vanilla only has one -- vanillin -- so choosing the real thing will give your baked goods much better flavor. If you're in the market for orchid blossoms, you'll have to grow your own -- Dendrobium varieties are the usual choice -- or check with online suppliers and upscale markets in your area. Don't pick orchids for food unless you know for sure that they've been grown without toxic sprays. If the orchids are intended to be eaten, pinch out the stamens and pistils from the blossom's center. These can taste bitter, and also bear pollen that can trigger allergies.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- Ionopsis.com: Edible Orchids
- Penn State Extension: A Consumer's Guide to Purchasing, Producing, Storing, and Using Edible Flowers
- Vegetable Gardener.com: The Vanilla Bean Orchid
- Photo Credit Lenushka2012/iStock/Getty Images
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