How to buy vanilla in Bali
Or, how to avoid all the mistakes I made while trying to buy vanilla in Bali.
A little background: I’m obsessed with vanilla, especially since it has gotten more expensive in 2015-2018. My index for price is vanilla extract at Costco, which used to cost $7 for 16 ounces in 2015 (oh, those were the days) and currently costs $35 (April 2018). You can currently buy 5 small medium/low quality vanilla beans on Amazon for $15 (May 2018). Click here for a nice article summarizing the state of vanilla in Spring 2018. Basically, economics 101… price too low, supply to big so decrease supply to increase price. The people I spoke with at the market in Bali said that the crop had trouble with not the right conditions to get a good harvest, but it sounds like the decrease in total vanilla vines is the root of the problem. Vanilla vines take a few years to grow, and they were culled in 2015. My hope is that means more beans and lower prices in 2019 (but that’s just a dream, no idea what the future will bring!)
1. Where to buy vanilla in Bali?
Based on my googling, the Candi Kuning market (AKA Pasar Bedugul) was a good place to start. I Grabbed a car and off I went. This market is up in the mountains, maybe an hour and a half from Denpasar through scenic winding roads. While you’re in the area, you might also want to visit other nearby attractions such as Pura Ulun Danu, Bali Treetop Adventure Park, Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, or one of the many Lewak coffee places. I found some very sad and very expensive vanilla beans at a touristy “Spices and Lewak Coffee” places (asking 450,000 IDR for 5 old and dried out beans.) My friend Putu found some beans at the Pepito supermarket 4 beans for 150,000 IDR, but they looked pretty dry.
2. What does vanilla look like?
It looks like a thin, dark brown bean. Fresh vanilla is fragrant and slightly moist and soft (but not moldy!) The best beans are nice and plump! Older vanilla beans (still fine for making extracts) are darker, harder, and sometimes bendy/twisty. The little red containers people sell as “vanilla powder” contain white crystals of vanillin (artificial vanilla flavoring) and are not worth your time. People will try to sell you it. Don’t buy it.
3. How much should vanilla cost?
Current retail price seems to be about $700 USD per kg of high quality beans through a gourmet retailer and less for lower quality. At the market today, I was quoted about $250 USD for a pound of medium quality beans (actually looked pretty moist, compared to some of the sad, dry specimens I have seen at other vendors.) As with any market where prices are not displayed, engage in bargaining which starts with knowing what it should cost and refusing to pay more than something is worth. For spices other than vanilla, start at 5,000 IDR for a small bag and see how that goes (you probably could get away with less!)
1 kg of beans = ~250-400 beans (they vary in size 4-8 inches)
If 1kg beans costs $700, 1 bean should be $1.75-2.80 or about 30,000 IDR for a really nice bean.
4. Can I bring it home with me?
Answer: hopefully? Depends on your country of residence.
From the United States Customs and Border Protection website (May 2018):
Spices – most dried spices are allowed except for orange, lemon, lime and other citrus leaves and seeds, lemongrass, and many vegetable and fruit seeds
Leave me a comment if you have (or have not!) successfully brought vanilla beans home with you!