Two years ago, I became enthralled with galangal while on a trip to Indonesia. The same day that I first tried the ginger-like root, I also had my first taste of pandan, a sweet, nutty green leaf often known as “screwpine.” I was taking a cooking class in Kuta, and at the end of the class, the instructor started turning out neon-green coconut dumplings and soft green crepes stuffed with sweet rice. It was both a flavor I had never had before and a lot flavors I already knew and loved, all in one. Slightly reminiscent of macadamia nuts or walnuts, but also like cereal, and then, too, with hints of banana, almond, and vanilla (in the same meal, the instructor made banana leaf-steamed fish, so I naturally assumed the sweet green was a type of banana leaf…it is not.)
What is Pandan?
Pandan is a perennial grass (a grass that grows year round) in the tropical Asian countries. It features heavily in the cuisines of Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore, and is as common in those countries as vanilla or bay leaves are in the west.
The plant’s leaves spiral outwards from a central base (hence, “screwpine,”) and can grow anywhere from 2 to 7 inches long. Because of the length, people often cut the leaves into segments or tie them into knots, to make the plant more manageable for transport or sale. The leaves come fresh, dried, frozen, as paste, or as extract, and like other herbs and aromatics, the dried version is less aromatic than the fresh leaves, which must be bruised before use, similar to lemongrass.
The plant produces flowers, which are also common in cooking, but in a different area. In northern India, they use the yellow flowers in such dishes as biryanis, and the extract (called “kewra”) is useful in desserts like rasgullah and gulab jamun.
In south and southeast Asia, they called the plant “daun pandan,” or “pandan wangi,” and it’s Latin name is Pandanus Amaryllifolius. It is of the Family Pandanaceae, the Screwpine Family, which also includesAustralian screwpine and common screwpine, among some 750 other species within the Pandanus genus. The English name, “screwpine,” was assigned by the English based on the way the plant looks.
When you first smell pandan extract, you’ll expect that it’s only used in sweets, but in fact, the leaves and the aroma are common in both savory and sweet recipes.
You can wrap food in the leaves for grilling and steaming, to impart flavor and create visual appeal, or bruise and wrap them like lemongrass for infusing in soups and stovetop recipes.
The leaves are tough and fibrous, but thinner than banana leaves. Therefore, they don’t do well eaten alone, but are easier to use for wrapping around foods than the thicker banana leaves.
The most common form is as a paste or extract, which has a longer shelf life and transports more easily than fresh leaves. Like turmeric, the paste adds vibrant color (green) to dishes.
Like mentioned above and in other articles, the fresh leaves are the most vivid way to use pandan, but because they grow in south and southeast Asia, they can be difficult to find in the United States fresh, unless you live near an Asian market. Below, after the recipe suggestions, I’ve included a list of Asian markets in New York City that carry pandan leaves and some online websites where you can order extract or paste. Dried pandan leaves last longer than fresh (though not as long as extract), but must be ground, masticated, or bloomed (rehydrated/boiled) in order to release the flavor oils.
You can even make your own extract to help preserve the shelf life of the plant, by boiling or processing the leaves with water and straining out the pulp.
- Fresh leaves should be stored like other produce, rinsed, wrapped loosely, and refrigerated, or wrapped in plastic and frozen.
- Dried leaves should be kept in a cool, dark, and dry place away from the sunlight.
- Powder and extract should also be kept away from the sunlight to help retain color and in a cool, dry place. They don’t need to be refrigerated.
Pandan Health Benefits
The main medicinal use of pandan is as a diuretic, but it is also helpful for relieving fever, flatulence, and inflammation, aiding indigestion, and treating skin diseases.
As mentioned before, pandan is useful in both sweet and savory recipes, so I’ve gathered some suggestions for both here:
- Pandan-wrapped steamed and deep-fried chicken
- Rice with coconut, black eyed peas, peppers, and pandan
- Banana or pandan leaf-wrapped carp packets
- Ayam Masak Merah, Malaysian red-cooked chicken
- Pandan-wrapped roasted pork
- Coconut pandan garlic fried rice
- Roti jala, Malaysian net bread
- Nasi lemak, Malaysian fried rice
- Pandan coconut dumplings (naturally gluten-free and vegan)
- If you can find pandan extract, you can do pandan extract and coconut milk for the color, flavor, and liquid
- The recipe in this link calls for blocks of palm sugar, but you can use the granulated, loose palm sugar, as well, and just spoon a little bit into the dumpling
- Indonesian pandan crepes with caramelized coconut (“Dadar Gulung”)
- Pandan coconut ice cream
- Banana pandan waffles
- Baked pandan cake
- Pandan chiffon cake
- Pandan kaya (coconut egg jam)
- Coconut pandan simple syrup
- Coconut and pandan agar sweets
- Pandan che ku kueh
Where Can I Buy Pandan?
104 Mosco Street
New York, NY, 10013
71 Mulberry Street
New York, NY, 10013
64-04 39th Avenue
Woodside, NY, 11377
43-03 Main Street
Flushing, NY, 11355
91 1st Avenue
New York, NY, 10003
123 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY, 10016
Most online stores sell pandan in extract form, which has the longest shelf life and has already been fully-processed. For the leaves (fresh, frozen, or dried), buying them in person in a storefront is the easiest way.
Cheeptham, N., & Towers, G. (2002). Light-mediated activities of some Thai medicinal plant teas. Fitoterapia, 73(7-8), 651-662. doi:10.1016/s0367-326x(02)00224-1
Falkowitz, M. (2010). Spice Hunting: Pandan. Serious Eats. http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/11/spice-hunting-pandan-how-to-use-make-extract.html
Ling, W. Y. (2008). “Grocery Ninja: Pandan, the Asian Vanilla.” Serious Eats. http://www.seriouseats.com/2008/11/pandan-the-asian-vanilla.html
Pandan Leaf. (n.d.). The Epicentre. http://theepicentre.com/spice/pandan-leaf/
Schmidt, D. (2016). “What is Pandan and How Do You Cook with it?” https://www.thespruce.com/cooking-with-pandan-3217067
Tan, C. (2014). “Blades of Glory.” Saveur. http://www.saveur.com/article/ingredients/ingredient-pandan
Wan, N. H. (2012). Pandan. The British Library. http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/spicetrail/pandan/