Pandan: A Sweet South Asian Green

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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.

“Pandan” Etymology

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.

Culinary Uses

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.

Storage:

  • 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.

Pandan Recipes

As mentioned before, pandan is useful in both sweet and savory recipes, so I’ve gathered some suggestions for both here:

Savory

Sweet

 

Where Can I Buy Pandan?

Stores:

Bangkok Center Grocery

website

Chinatown

104 Mosco Street

New York, NY, 10013

 

Asia Market

website

Chinatown

71 Mulberry Street

New York, NY, 10013

 

Inthira Thai Market

in the news

Woodside

64-04 39th Avenue

Woodside, NY, 11377

 

Old Town Asia Market

Flushing

43-03 Main Street

Flushing, NY, 11355

 

Dual Specialty Store

website

East Village

91 1st Avenue

New York, NY, 10003

 

Kalustyan’s

website

Flatiron

123 Lexington Avenue

New York, NY, 10016

 

Online Stores

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.

Amazon

Grocery Thai

Import Food Thai Supermarket

Indo Food Store

 

 

Sources

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/

 

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About Author

"Nick's journey with food began in 2008, when he tried making cookies for the first time ever...and forgot half of the flour. Ever since, he's been devouring culinary memoirs and cookbooks as voraciously as apple pie, tasting whatever foods he can get his hands on, and learning about cooking the only way he knows how: by trying, failing, and trying again. He currently works in retail management at a store that sells kitchen goods and hosts cooking classes, while blogging at Kitchen Klutz Blog, and studying for a Master of Arts in Teaching." http://kitchenklutzblog.com/

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