You know how you discover something, and then you suddenly its as if by magic you see it or references to it pop up everywhere? Or maybe you become hyper sensitive to it once you heard about it, well that’s pandan leaves for me right now. I had heard of pandan leaves before but as I was writing my post on vanilla I saw the tweets of an Asian cuisine focused chef where he wrote: “pandan leaves are to vanilla what silk is to cotton.” That comment demands in no subtle terms that this flavoring agent be examined forthwith, especially given its nickname of “the vanilla of the east.”
Pandan leaves may also be called screw-pine leaf or pandanus. They come from a tropical plant in the screwpine genus which is related to the lily family and is widely used in Southeast Asian cooking: Indonesian, Singaporean, Filipino, Malaysian, Thai, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese and Burmese foods. As I gleaned from my research, for the uninitiated, we’ve probably enjoyed pandan leaves in our food and never knew it.
How Do They Look, and How Are They Used?
A pandan leaf is long, narrow, and dark green, and can be found fresh, frozen, or dried. The leaves and flowers also come as bright green extracts. Like most herbs, the dried leaves are less fragrant than the fresh leaves. The leaves must be bruised or boiled in order to release their flavor. Their rigidity is similar to a banana leaf. Their aroma has been described as roselike, almondy, and milky sweet, vanilla-like flavor. By contrast, the dried leaves have no flavor. The leaf is also bruised or raked with the tines of a fork to release its aroma, pounded to release its aromatic juice, or even boiled to obtain its flavor. Because color is a key attribute of the pandan leaf, it must be carefully dried to retain its bright-green appearance and unique fragrance.
Fresh pandan leaves are available from Asian grocery stores and some specialty produce retailers – I found some easily at the local market here in San Franicsco. The best way to store them is whole, in a plastic bag in the freezer. Which I had to do as work got the better of me.
Where Might You Find Them
Pandan leaves are incredibly versatile and are used to wrap chicken, meat, fish, before they are grilled, roasted or steamed (just like banana leaves), and the bruised leaves, or their extract, are used in desserts and rice dishes. Often, the leaves are steeped in coconut milk, which is then added to the dish. They may be tied in a clump and cooked with the soups, stews, and often with coconut milk to serve as a base for flavor. They can be woven into a basket and used as a pot for cooking rice. Just a seemingly endless variety of ways to add pandan leaves’ distinctly sweet, floral-like notes to these dishes. Commercially prepared pandan leaf extract is often treated with green food coloring which affects the flavor as much as the color, and not necessarily in a good way. Pandan leaves can also be found in powder form, and for maximum freshness, make sure the powder is bright green.
Australian Aborigines ate the globe like, pineapple-sized fruits, after roasting them to destroy an irritating component. Heating the fruit is required (not an option) as the 19th century explorer Leichhardt discovered, the hard way, after suffering a blistered tongue and violent diarrhea.
The pandan flower is more delicate and fragrant than the leaf, and is what is used in North India to perfume biryanis. Some flavors that pandan leaves just naturally compliment include rice, coconut, lemongrass, brown sugar, star anise, cumin, and nutmeg. In the context of Indian cooking, its extract, called kewra, flavors such desserts such as rasgulla (cheese in syrup), gulab jamun (fried cheese in syrup), rasmalai (cheese with condensed milk), cakes, and beverages.
I am not sure I agree with my esteemed chef Twitter friend in comparing pandan to vanilla in that way. Both are delicious, and while some similarities can be detected, I would never mistake the two. In any event, I owe my Twitter buddy a debt of gratitude because without his strong proclamation I may not have sought out this new herb.
Pandan leaves might be more familiar if you knew their other names:
chan heung lahn, chan xiang lan (Cantonese, Mandarin)
tay ban (Laotian)
daun pandan (Malaysian, Indonesian)
bai toey hom (Thai)
cay com nep (Vietnamese)
Pandan Cooking Ideas:
If all of that was not enough to intrigue you, randomly the leaves are repellent to roaches. Seriously!