Southeast Asian

The Beguiling Aroma of Pandan

This Southeast Asian shrub lends a sweet, grassy fragrance to everything it touches.

August  7, 2020
Photo by Yi Jun Loh

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).

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.

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Top Comment:
“I have noticed that the Pandan extract commonly sold online is made from Propylene Glycol, water, artifical Pandan flavor, nature identical coconut milk flavor, FD&C yellow 5 and blue 1. Not very appetizing knowing what’s in it as nothing in it seems very real. I wonder why the real thing isn’t sold as an extract. Still great article!”
— Chet S.
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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.

What is your favorite recipe starring pandan? Tell us about it in the comments!

Recipes to Be Beguiled By

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  • Chet Shannon
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Engineer + cook + food blogger. All about cross-cultural cooking, funky-fresh ferments, and abusing alliteration.

8 Comments

Chet S. August 17, 2020
Great article. Pandan is great. I have noticed that the Pandan extract commonly sold online is made from Propylene Glycol, water, artifical Pandan flavor, nature identical coconut milk flavor, FD&C yellow 5 and blue 1. Not very appetizing knowing what’s in it as nothing in it seems very real. I wonder why the real thing isn’t sold as an extract. Still great article!
 
Donamaya August 17, 2020
The Maesri brand of Pandan leaf extract is a much cleaner product- no artificial color or flavors.
Kalustyan’s in NYC carries it in the shop and you can order it online at:
foodsofnations.com
 
KS August 16, 2020
Hooray! Ever since the first time I stayed in Malaysia, some four decades ago, nasi lemak (pandan rice) has been one of my favorite things to eat. But I've never seen pandan written about like this. I've haunted Asian markets wherever in the US I've lived, and even though I learned its name in several SE Asian languages, mostly what I got has been blank stares. Maybe a bottle of pandan essence. Most of it horrible.

Every now and then the leaves show up on Amazon for a small fortune. I freeze them, and hoard them, but like all aromatics they lose fragrance over time. You have done a good job of trying to describe the way pandan smells, but really, it is indescribable.

For me, nasi lemak is good for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Or a snack. My favorite way to eat it is whenever I have it. I make it very simply, although there are many other recipes: I make rice in a rice cooker as I usually do, but use coconut milk as the liquid and fold a couple of leaves up and lay them on top during cooking. Of course if I can get the milk freshly squeezed out of a coconut, it is extra good. Whatever you do don't use cream or anything with sweetener added.

I eat a mound of it with a small bits of as many side dishes as I have, like anchovies, a bit of chicken or vegetable curry, sliced skinny cucumbers, hard boiled egg, chillies, pickles, you get the idea. I never mix it with anything because I want the pandan flavor to stand out. It's both a treat and comfort food. Children love it.

I want to try some of the savory ideas in your article--I don't care for thr sweets though many people like them--so here's hoping you are right about it becoming more available. I have seen it in a grocery store only once, and the leaves looked like they had been picked long ago. I tried to grow it with no success.
 
sweet F. August 16, 2020
Where would one buy pandas in NYC?
Is it available online?
 
Donamaya August 16, 2020
Kalustyan's at 123 Lexington Ave in NYC (28-29th street)sells frozen and dried pandan leaves as well as a pretty natural pandan extract in cans.
212 685-3451- open 7 days/week
full disclosure- i'm the manager:)
 
sweet F. August 16, 2020
Thank you so much !!
 
Sharon August 16, 2020
Kalustyan's is a national treasure. I wish I could go right now!
 
HalfPint August 7, 2020
I love the pandas waffles they see at the Vietnamese bakeries. So good :)