The secret to my aunt’s cá kho (Vietnamese braised fish) is a bundle of pandan leaves that she ties into a knot and simmers in the braising liquid. It mellows the pungent fish sauce and brings brightness to the heady spices. When I was a student in Singapore, I could never get enough of chendol, a cold dessert featuring wormlike pandan jelly and an assortment of toppings in coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. Whether it’s used in sweet or savory dishes, pandan’s verdant green and nuanced aroma add a special flair to everything it touches.
What is pandan?
Pandan is the common name for Pandanus amaryllifolius, a perennial shrub belonging to the Pandanus genus of the screw pine (Pandanaceae) family. Out of 700 species under this genus, pandanus amaryllifolius is the only one with fragrant leaves (another related variety produces perfumed flowers that are distilled into kewra essence, a flavoring in North Indian cuisine). The leaves of other Pandanus species can be used to make handicraft such as mats, ropes, and baskets.
The pandan plant is recognized by its elongated blade-shaped leaves that resemble the top of a pineapple plant (a similarity that earned the plant the moniker of lá dứa, or “pineapple leaf,” in Vietnamese, though it has no relation to the fruit). Native to South and Southeast Asia, it thrives in tropical conditions and varies in size; a pandan shrub can reach somewhere between 5 and 14 feet, with leaves from 1 to 5 inches wide.
“It looks like regular grass if you don’t know what you’re looking for,” says Brian Tran. “You could definitely walk by it and not realize you’re looking at pandan.” Tran is the owner of Là Lá Bakeshop, a Vietnamese bakery in Toronto that uses pandan liberally in its pastries. One of its signature cakes contains a layer of pandan chiffon cake resting on a base of coconut-infused sticky rice, which reminds me of green glutinous rice sprinkled with coconut flesh and other sweet toppings, often sold by street vendors in Vietnam.
What does pandan smell like?
Pandan’s mighty power is hidden in its leaves: When they’re bruised and cooked they release an intriguing aroma variously described as floral, grassy, or sweet and musky. Pandan can star in a dish as well as play a supporting role to accentuate other ingredients. It whispers in the fluffy rice grains of nasi lemak, a popular dish in Singapore and Malaysia featuring coconut rice served with crispy anchovies and peanuts alongside sambal; in the Filipino dessert salad buko pandan, pandan announces itself loud and clear in the form of a vibrant green jelly.
Pandan’s aroma is developed when a yellow pigment breaks down as the leaves wither, producing the volatile compound 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (2AP). The compound is also found in fragrant rice varieties such as basmati and jasmine, and in the smell of popcorn and crabmeat. Christopher Tan, a cookbook author and culinary instructor who lives in Singapore, reports that he’s also detected notes of pandan in jasmine flowers, barley, cut grass, and hay.
“It’s grassy without being earthy,” says Sam Fore, a Kentucky-born Sri Lankan American chef who runs the Lexington pop-up Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites. “It can be very bright.”
To the Filipino chef and activist Angela Dimayuga, pandan’s taste evades description. It is a scent as much as a flavor, “almost translucent, if such a word applies — like water left to steep in a bamboo cup,” she writes in her book Filipinx: Heritage Recipes from the Diaspora. Meanwhile, Yana Gilbuena, who travels around hosting SALO Series, a Filipino kamayan feast, likens its essence to “a grassy floral vanilla.”
Because of their similarity, pandan is often coined “the Asian vanilla” or “vanilla of the East.” Tran also uses these analogies at his bakery to introduce this flavoring to curious customers. Cookbook author Tan thinks the comparison makes a good sound bite, albeit an oversimplified one. “Where I think it does have some validity,” he says, “is the fact that both vanilla and pandan are versatile enough to be used in both sweet and savory contexts, and can good-naturedly play well with a fairly wide range of other flavors and aromas.”
Where did pandan originate?
Pandan’s earliest English reference dates back to 1832 in Flora Indica, a book by the Scottish surgeon-turned-botanist William Roxburgh. He described the leaves as “linear, tending to be three-nerved, apices rather broad, somewhat spinous-serrulate” and their place of origin as Amboyna (now part of the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, also known as the Moluccas). However, pandan is an ancient cultivar that had been found in the Moluccas, an east Indonesian archipelago, much earlier.
Pandan was primarily cultivated in Indonesia, the Malayan peninsula, the Philippines, and parts of New Guinea historically influenced by Malay culture before it was brought to other countries. (The genus name, Pandanus, derives from the Malayan word for screw pine; in Malaysia, pandan is known as pandan wangi, with wangi meaning “fragrant.”) Some streets and neighborhoods in Singapore and Malaysia still have “pandan” in their names, likely reflecting the presence of various species of screw pine trees that used to grow in the area.
What is pandan used for?
“In Southeast Asian cuisines, pandan is used principally for aroma and secondarily for color, and very often for both simultaneously,” Tan says.
Many countries in the region share similar methods for extracting pandan essence. In nasi kuning (yellow rice), nasi minyak (ghee rice), and other rice dishes eaten across Malaysia and Indonesia, pandan leaves are tied into a knot and added to the rice pot together with other spices. Vietnamese cooks like to steam pandan leaves with plain white rice to mimic the luxurious fragrance associated with the prized jasmine rice. You can also simmer pandan in sauces, stews, curries, or soups. Both dried and fresh pandan leaves can be steeped with lemongrass to make a refreshing tea.
To use pandan as a coloring, cooks blend or pound the leaves with water and strain the liquid, which can then be added to batter, dough, custard, jelly, or any dishes that need a touch of green. This is how pandan makes its way into traditional treats such as bánh bò (honeycomb cake) and kaya (coconut jam), as well as tropical renditions of waffles, chiffon cake, ice cream, and other popular desserts.
While researching and writing his book The Way of Kueh: Savoring & Saving Singapore’s Heritage Desserts, Tan came to appreciate the extensive role pandan plays in kueh, a broad term that encompasses a wide range of dainty sweet and savory treats in parts of China, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Many kueh recipes feature layers of pandan through different preparations, from steaming and simmering, to dry toasting and weaving the leaves into a vessel to hold the kueh.
One example is kuih seri muka (also known as kueh sarlat), a steamed two-tiered sweet snack with a compact base of glutinous rice infused with coconut milk and pandan (with the occasional blue swirls from butterfly pea flower). On top of this, you’ll find a custard of eggs, coconut milk, and sugar, dyed green with pandan juice.
Meanwhile, pandan is mostly used as a savory component in Sri Lanka, where it’s known as rampe. Fore, the Sri Lankan American chef, came across rampe in old recipe books, and its herbaceous grassy note has been a part of her cooking ever since.
“Everyone [in Sri Lanka] has a pandan plant that they use as a part of their curries,” she says. “It’s one of the building blocks of Sri Lankan curries.” Using a technique called tempering, she toasts pandan leaves and curry leaves in hot oil to create a foundational note that rounds out the flavor of a dish.
Another common way to infuse pandan’s aroma is to use it as a wrapper. In Thailand, the beloved dish pandan chicken is made by wrapping chicken morsels with pandan leaves and then deep-frying them. In the FIlipino dish sinanglay na isda, a stuffed fish is wrapped in pandan leaves (or lemongrass) and simmered in a rich coconut milk sauce.
Where can I find pandan?
Fresh and frozen pandan leaves are available at most Asian supermarkets. You can also look for pandan extract (in both clear and green form) and pandan paste (which has a thicker consistency) online and in the baking aisle of some well-stocked grocery stores.
To store fresh pandan, Tan advises wrapping the leaves in a double layer of plastic bags and placing them in the vegetable drawer or a wine fridge. Ideally the leaves should still be joined at the stem base to stay fresh longer.
How can I use pandan in my cooking?
While Tan prefers to work with natural fresh pandan (which he thinks trumps the extract’s synthetic notes), extract is the way to go for those who don’t often have access to the leaves.
“It’s very easy to come by, it’s inexpensive, you can swap it for recipes that use vanilla,” says Tran. “Add it to sponge cakes.” It may not be a one-to-one equivalent, so feel free to adjust the amount of extract to your taste. Pay attention to the ingredients on the label as well, as extracts with added sugar might affect the sweetness level of your cake.
To Gilbuena, natural pandan juice gives dishes a more delicate aroma but lacks the robust green that can be achieved with an extract. At Là Lá Bakeshop, Tran uses a mix of both house-made and store-bought extract “for the eyes to eat as well,” he says.
If you have fresh or frozen pandan leaves on hand, Fore suggests steaming them with rice or making a stir-fry dish where the pandan is cooked quickly and still maintains its brightness. Remember to discard the leaves before serving as they are very fibrous.
For a sweet route, Tan recommends simmering shredded pandan leaves in simple syrup until they turn dark green and limp. Strain the liquid and use it in iced tea or cocktails, or over panna cotta or pancakes. “This will acquaint you with pandan aroma in its purest form,” he says.
Here are a few more recipes to get you started:
Sam Fore’s Tempered Curry-Ginger Sweet Potatoes
Yana Gilbuena’s Buko Pandan
Arlyn Osborne’s Biko (Filipino Sticky Rice Cake)
Pailin Chongchitnant’s Pandan Coconut Custard
Bee’s Nasi Lemak
Samantha Seneviratne’s Kukul Mas Maluwa (Sri Lankan Chicken Curry)
Huy Vu’s Honeycomb Cake
Marion Grasby’s Pandan Chicken