Madagascar beans can potentially refer to two very different types of food products. When used simply as “Madagascar bean,” it typically refers to a type of lima bean that is often grown in tropical regions and enjoyed in preparing a number of different dishes. It can also be used to refer to Madagascar vanilla beans that are used to produce more than half of the vanilla consumed throughout the world. Madagascar beans, in either context, are quite delicious and both are typically grown as vines along a trellis, tree, or other supportive structure.
The savory type of Madagascar beans are a type of lima bean that may be eaten raw when green or allowed to dry and enjoyed in soups and similar dishes. Also known as Phaseolus lunatus, Madagascar beans grow as a perennial vine and typically are allowed to grow along a supportive structure. This usually consists of a trellis that will provide the vine with support, but will not obstruct sunlight or water from reaching the plant.
While still green, these Madagascar beans can be harvested and enjoyed raw or lightly steamed. The pods should not be eaten, but the beans within are green, tender, and slightly creamy when chewed. They can also be allowed to dry out on the vine. When they do, they become a dark red with white spots on them. These dried beans are typically perfect for storage, either at room temperature or frozen, and can be used in soups, stews, and any other dish that calls for dried beans.
The other type of Madagascar beans often referred to are Madagascar vanilla beans that are sweet and used in everything from desserts and pastries to scented candles and body lotions. Though originally from Mexico and similar regions, the most popular variety of vanilla, Vanilla planifolia, is now principally grown and harvested in Madagascar. It is actually a type of orchid and produces a fruit or bean that is harvested to produce raw vanilla beans or vanilla extract.
These Madagascar beans typically come in a raw state as a long, thin pod that has been dried out for easier transport and use. To use the raw vanilla, the pod should be split open with a sharp knife. The small vanilla beans within can be scraped out and used in cooking. They will typically appear as tiny black specks in the finished dish and are quite noticeable in vanilla ice cream that uses real vanilla bean. Liquid vanilla extract can also be made quite easily by soaking the pods in ethyl alcohol, such as vodka, for a period of time, then straining the liquid.