Vanilla might be the most pervasive dessert flavor in Western cultures, but in Southeast Asia, where I live, there’s another ingredient that trumps vanilla in its ubiquity and in being, well, just as basic as vanilla. I’m talking about pandan.
Pandan—the more common term for pandanus amaryllifolius, a species of screwpine shrub—is a plant with long, slender leaves. Imagine the languid leaf segments of a palm tree bundled up into a waist-high shrub—that’s what pandan looks like. It’s sometimes referred to as “Asian vanilla,” and though pandan is as popular in this region of the world as vanilla is in the rest, the similarities between the two end there.
While vanilla has a creamy, musky, caramel fragrance, pandan’s is a cross between freshly steamed rice and freshly mowed lawn. And, when blended down into a paste or extract, will lend its striking, grassy hue to whatever it touches.
For these two reasons—pandan's striking hue and inimitable aroma—there's an iconic pandan treat from virtually every Southeast Asian cuisine. Think: Indonesian ondeh-ondeh (coconutty rice cakes), Filipino buko pandan (pandan jelly in coconut milk), Thai khanom chan (steamed coconut pandan cake), and Vietnamese bánh bò nướng (honeycomb cake).
View this post on Instagram
Made some pandan kaya! (recipe on the blog) If you haven't heard, pandan might just be the next big thing in food, well, according to @nigellalawson. 🤷♂️ ___ #sureornot #pandan #kaya #f52grams #foodblogger #foodphotography #lifeandthyme #feedfeed
A post shared by Jun | Jun & Tonic (@jun.and.tonic) on
In my home country of Malaysia alone, there’s a whole suite of sweets starring the shrub, from kuih ketayaps (pandan-scented pancake filled with syrup-stewed coconut) to bingka pandan (a compact, coconutty tin cake), kuih talams (jelly-like coconut and pandan dessert) to pandan chiffon cakes and Swiss rolls.
So widespread is its use that Grub Street writer Jasmine Ting lists pandan as one of the three ingredients that “define the culinary landscape of the tropical Indochinese peninsula” (the other two being seafood and coconut).
Pandan's become somewhat of a third culture flavor. There’s pandan granola, pandan croissants, and in Vietnam, bánh kẹp lá dứa (beloved street snack pandan waffles, which are likely to have been introduced via French colonialism). It's a key ingredient in Berkeley’s (fittingly named) Third Culture Bakery’s trademarked Mochi Muffins, as well as Boba Guys’ pandan caramel; Times drinks writer Robert Simonson reported back in 2017 that “pandan’s “lingering, nutty flavor...bewitche[d] bartenders and drinkers” across New York and Paris. Even big brands like McDonalds and Starbucks offer McFlurries and muffins resplendent in regal green.
Pandan’s portfolio expands into the savory realm too. Tie a couple of leaves into a knot—so they’re easier to fish out after—and steam with rice, for a mellow, sweetly scented variation on the plain carb. Or, toss a palmful into a Thai panang curry or Indonesian rendang, where it’ll lend its herbaceous fragrance. Wrap a leaf around a chicken cutlet and leave it to char on the grill, à la Thai pandan chicken, for a winning dinner perfumed with toasty coconuttiness.
But in what is perhaps pandan’s largest endorsement of all: In 2017, Nigella Lawson knighted the leaf as the next big food thing (a prediction that hasn’t yet quite come to fruition, but I’m holding out hope).
With just a few drops of extract, pinch of powder, or steeping of leaves (all of which can be found online; frozen and fresh leaves also in most Asian grocers), your dishes—sweet and savory—will blossom with an unprecedented grassy-sweet aroma and a glorious, green glow.