Special Ingredients: Pandan Leaf

easier to get than first imagined

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.

 

fresh from my freezer, complete with ice crystals

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.

Nonya treats in Singapore

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:

kathey (Arabic)
ketaky (Bengali)
chan heung lahn, chan xiang lan (Cantonese, Mandarin)
skrupalm (Danish)
pandan (Dutch)
pandanus (French)
schraubenpalme (German)
pandanus (Hebrew)
rampe (Hindi)
pandanuz (Hungarian)
pandano (Italian)
takonoki (Japanese)
taey (Khmer)
tay ban (Laotian)
kaitha (Malayalam)
daun pandan (Malaysian, Indonesian)
skrupalme (Norwegian)
pandano (Portuguese)
rampe (Singhalese)
pandano (Spanish)
skruvpalm (Swedish)
thazhai (Tamil)
bai toey hom (Thai)
cay com nep (Vietnamese)

Pandan Cooking Ideas:

Jun Blog – How to Make Pandan Cake

Rasamlaysia – onde-onde

SheSimmers – Thai Coconut Bread Dip – Sanghaya

Saveur: kaya

VietWorld Kitchen – Pandan and Coconut Tapioca Cake (Banh Bo Nuong)

If all of that was not enough to intrigue you, randomly the leaves are repellent to roaches.  Seriously!

Update me when site is updated

32 comments for “Special Ingredients: Pandan Leaf

  1. February 13, 2011 at 7:34 AM

    OMG $1.39 for a few leaves??? I have a pot growing here and these suckers just keep on multiplying and multiplying like…well.. rabbits (how apropos for Chinese New Year).

    I don’t think pandan and vanilla taste alike. Pandan is grassy in taste and very subtle. Vanilla is far from grassy.

    I always make cold panadan-lemongrass tea with all these leaves growing left and right. It’s perfect for those hot and humid afternoons we have here. You should give it a try. I always use this recipe:

    http://www.filipinovegetarianrecipe.com/drinks/pandan_lemongrass_iced_tea.php

    KM
    The Kitchen Masochist recently posted..Asian Style Barley Pilaf

  2. OysterCulture
    February 13, 2011 at 8:22 AM

    KM – Are you telling me I didn”t get a bargain? =) I paid that amount for 2 leaves. I’ll have to be on the lookout for fresh plants, living in an apartment in San Francisco, my options seem a bit limited.

    Your pandan lemongrass tea sounds amazing, I am definitely giving it a try and its probably something I can make with my current schedule.

    Thanks for the confirmation I was not missing something on my taste testing. I was not sure I had a batch that did not taste like typical pandan, but as I said while there were similarity each had their own attributes. I definitely look forward to incorporating more pandan in my cooking, but I would not think of substituting it for vanilla.

  3. February 13, 2011 at 9:21 AM

    Actually, we went to Hakkasan for an early Valentine’s day Friday and one of the desserts they had on the menu was Pandan Souffle. I had to ask what it was – but now I really know :)
    Brenda – Aesthetic Dalliances recently posted..Braised Fennel with Anchovy and Lemon

  4. February 13, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    Great info! I’ve been curious about pandan leaves but haven’t found them locally yet. But, now I might try harder to find them. I’d love to try wrapping fish in the leaves for cooking.
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Seaweed and Noodle Salad with Salmon Teriyaki

  5. February 13, 2011 at 6:46 PM

    My grandmother used to bake fish with pandan leaves which was so delicious. I have not had it quite the way she would prepare it since. She would also make an amazing pandan cake that I loved. What a great post!
    lisa recently posted..Whole Wheat Blueberry Skillet Cake

  6. February 14, 2011 at 10:03 AM

    OC-

    2 leaves???? I think I’m getting a headache now. Let me put it this way, at the supermarkets over here, they’re sold in bunches (about 12-15 leaves) for around $0.12 and they’re still fresh and green, not frozen.

    Will they be able to survive SF climate? I’ve had my pandan plants for a year now and I water them every 2 days during the dry season. They’re very low maintenance.

    NO, pandan SHOULD NOT be substituted for vanilla or vice versa. They are very different in taste to me. I taste no similarity between the two at all, to be honest.

    Yeah OC, grow your own if you can. That pandan lemongrass tea calls for 10 pandan leaves. Since your leaves are frozen, you’ll need more than 10 leaves because some flavor is lost with frozen leaves. So if you bought those 2 leaves for $1.39…if you do the math, that’s one expensive tea.

    KM

  7. An
    February 14, 2011 at 11:41 AM

    Hello, longtime reader and (I think) posting for the first time.

    I don’t think the Asian chef meant that pandan tastes like vanilla. I believe he meant that as silk is more refined than cotton, so is pandan a more refined taste than vanilla (think silk clothes versus cotton clothes).

    Since you are in the Bay area, you could try one of my favorite treats: green waffles (pandan waffles). In my opinion the best ones are the ones at Century Bakery (a Vietnamese bakery) in San Jose. It might be a bit of a drive but if you ever need to go down to South Bay, definitely check it out. Yum yum yum.
    An recently posted..The customer is not always right

  8. February 14, 2011 at 2:53 PM

    I discovered pandan leaves here in London a few years ago in tea form. A few bits of leaf in hot water, served with honey. Mild and tasty. For reference a single pot was served with three 2-inch long bits of the tea…
    gastroanthropologist recently posted..Flat Chewy Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies

  9. February 14, 2011 at 2:54 PM

    oops, I meant three 2-inch long bits of pandan leaf
    gastroanthropologist recently posted..Flat Chewy Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies

  10. February 14, 2011 at 3:07 PM

    When we cook coconut-infused rice for Nasi Lemak, we add in Pandan leaves as well. Where did you get those Singapore nyonya treats from? ;p

  11. February 14, 2011 at 10:00 PM

    I would definitely love to find pandan leaves to cook with! Haven’t seen them in my store but must ask sometime :)
    5 Star Foodie recently posted..Fruit Cocktails by Wataru Matsumoto Part 2

  12. February 15, 2011 at 2:24 AM

    I love the natural green of pandan leaves…don’t see them here though. Guess I will have to visit Asia stores again.
    Angie’s Recipes recently posted..Rosemary Cranberry Focaccia with Pine Nuts

  13. February 15, 2011 at 12:35 PM

    Wow, love your post about the pandan leaves as they always intrigue me…I’ve seen in local Japanese store…

  14. February 15, 2011 at 4:27 PM

    Roselike, almondy, roselike, vanilla-like flavor? Oh my! I’ve had desserts flavored with pandan leaves, but have never cooked with them. Like you, I assumed that it was difficult to procure. If I can get a hold of these leaves, I’m going to try steeping them in coconut milk, and tapioca, which is a comforting combination to me.
    Christine @ Fresh Local and Best recently posted..Absolutely Sinful Flourless Chocolate Cake Recipe

  15. OysterCulture
    February 15, 2011 at 5:06 PM

    Brenda – My timing may have been a bit off, but you got the picture. =)

    Lisa – I’ll suggest the obvious, Asian markets, and I was lucky enough to find mine fresh. I cannot wait to see what you do with yours.

    Lisa – I see I may need to make a pandan leaf themed meal to try it in its sweet and savory forms. Thanks for the wonderful suggestions.

    KM – Hhhmm, I’m sensing an arbitrage opportunity here, unless someone beats me to it. I’ll definitely have to hunt down a pandan plant, just not sure how well they’ll do in an apartment. I may have to find FWPL – friends with pandan leaves.

    An – Ahh, you are probably right, that makes so much sense. Thanks for pointing it out, and for the wonderful suggestion. I have to go to the South Bay fairly frequently for work, I see a pit stop in my future. Thanks so much for the suggestion and taking the time to comment.

    Gastro – The pandan leaf tea seems very popular, KM has a delicious sounding recipe for one with lemongrass that I imagine will be incredibly tasty.

    Tigerfish – ok, now you’re just making me hungary. I took that picture of some treats I picked up at a store on Orchard Road, I think it was Takaskimaya that I wanted to share with my friends. We were in Orchardville when I took that picture. Good stuff, all!

    5 Star – Wegmans? Although, I am thinking the Asian Market in 7 Corners.

    Angie – Just cooked with them today and I did not get much of a green color, which only means I have to try again!

    Julianna – You should definitely give them a try, the depth of flavor they add to rice et all is just delicious. I can now appreciate the comparison to silk.

    Christine – Had to chuckle at your comment, because I literally just sat back at my desk to start working again after packing up a batch of tapioca I made with coconut milk and pandan leaves, and I can vouch it is very comforting.

  16. February 15, 2011 at 5:36 PM

    Such a great post…I have only had pandan leaves as tea, I am going to have to check into these uses :)
    Hope you had a great valentines day…

  17. February 15, 2011 at 5:37 PM

    Such a great post…I have only had pandan leaves as tea, I am going to have to check into these uses :)
    Hope you had a great valentines day.

  18. February 16, 2011 at 6:17 AM

    Once again I’m sighing with jealousy and wishing we had more ingredient diversity. :) Just kidding. To be honest we did have a new Asian market open here and I have to admit I haven’t combed the shelves completely so they could have them but it would be a stretch.

    We had a minor exposure to pandan in SE Asia, but I can’t say we truly explored the leaf and all it’s uses. It was an ingredient in a lot of menu offerings and we did have it some kaya which gave it an interesting green tint and a great flavor.
    Lori recently posted..Kentucky Bourbon Dogs

  19. February 17, 2011 at 6:11 AM

    I may have heard of pandan leaves before, but I honestly never paid attention… I will now! Thanks for all the info!
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Surprise Dinner

  20. February 18, 2011 at 4:45 AM

    Weaving pandan into a basket to cook rice, wow I can imagine the wonderful flavor boost…great feedback for all your comments, let us know if you drive out and try those waflfles, thanks for the info..

    sweetlife

  21. February 21, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    Oh how I do appreciate this post, Oyster:) I have always been intrigued by those leaves as I have seen them in Wegman’s in State College. I just never had a chance to “investigate.”

    Thank you so much for this wealth of information. Now I know to give them a try the next time I see them. Just GREAT!!!
    Louise recently posted..Quick! Its Presidents Day!

  22. February 21, 2011 at 7:38 PM

    I have seen pandan leaves mentioned a bunch of times in other blogs but now I am really curious; next time I am in the Asian store I will get some and cook with them and when back in Beirut will ask my filippino ladies about it! Thanks for a great post ! (as always!)
    tasteofbeirut recently posted..Chicken muhammara Djej muhammara

  23. OysterCulture
    February 21, 2011 at 8:00 PM

    MoS – With a name like yours, you cannot help but give these beauties a go. Try them and you will be instantly hooked I promise.

    Lori – I found the fresh leaves in the produce section of my local market, fingers crossed you can do the same.

    Andrea – Please do, they are a new favorite here.

    Sweetlife – I know, I thought just making the basket for the presentation alone would be cool, but the flavor certainly sends the whole process over the top.

    Louise – Glad to help! You’ll need to investigate, and you can thank me again later ;-)

    ToB – I’d love to know what your friends say, and I can only imagine what magic you’ll create with your interpretation of them.

  24. February 23, 2011 at 8:38 AM

    All of a sudden I am seeing many mentions of pandan leaves. Whether or not I can find them remains to be seen. I love the myriad of uses and would love a whiff of their fragrance.
    Claudia recently posted..The Enchantment of Ragu

  25. February 24, 2011 at 9:50 PM

    I’ve never thought of comparing pandan to vanilla either. I’ve had it in waffles and other desserts but never tried cooking with it or making my own dessert with it. That might actually be fun!
    Kitchen M recently posted..Whole Wheat &amp Frog Hollow Granola Bagels

  26. February 27, 2011 at 1:35 PM

    Oh girl I am so printing this list- I would love to experiment with the leaves, do you say it like it is spelled?
    Pan- Dan?
    Chef E recently posted..Chorizo-Vegetable and Kale Soup

  27. OysterCulture
    February 27, 2011 at 3:00 PM

    Claudia – Its like the blogging world is full of lemmings, where one goes we all go. Best of luck finding them in MN – maybe in the International Market? I bet the farmers market in the summer might have some as many of the growers are Hmong and they should be familiar with the herb.

    KM – I cannot wait to see what you do with it. Work your magic!

    Chef E – Posted a copy on your Facebook page. I believe your pronounciation is correct, or I am misprouncing it too.

  28. March 6, 2011 at 7:43 AM

    Never heard of pandan leaves! But you make me curious with your description of its flavor.

  29. boo
    August 27, 2012 at 5:46 AM

    here’s a nice desert http://www.noobcook.com/ginkgo-barley-fu-chok/

    here’s another use for pandan leaves. http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Cockroaches-Leave-Your-Home-with-Pandan-Leaves

    stuff some into your bonnet. your car will smell awesome.

  30. Anil
    October 30, 2012 at 7:58 PM

    In India,an extract from Pandan plant’s flower is used to flavour biriyanis and sweets.It is called Kewra essence and is available in Indian shops.The flower has got a more refined flavour and fragrance than the leaves.It is generally added towards the end of the cooking and should not be exposed to high heat.If you are using it to flavour rice,add 5~6 drops to couple of table spoons of milk or water and add to rice and stir just before taking it off from flame.

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