Pandan, also known as screw pine depending on its form, is a herbaceous tropical plant from Southeast Asia used in many Thai and Southeast-Asian dishes. Known as the “fragrant plant” in China due to its unique, sweet aroma, this cultivated plant is similar to the palm tree and has bright green leaves that are long, slender, and spiky. If you’ve ever had certain authentic Thai dishes, you may have seen these tropical-looking leaves wrapped around chicken or sticky rice. Like banana leaves, whole pandan leaves are often wrapped around foods before steaming or frying. But pandan takes on many forms. You can find it fresh, as a paste, extract or powder. It also can be used in sweet settings; pandan paste and extract are added to recipes as a flavoring in the same way we use vanilla. Pandan powder is included in baked goods and tea. Whichever form of pandan you use, be prepared for your dish to take on a green color. Green eggs and ham, anyone?
If you come across some pandan, which is readily available at most Asian markets including Viet Huong in Savannah, note that fresh leaves have the strongest flavor. If using frozen or dried pandan leaves, double or triple the amount called for because freezing and drying diminish the flavor significantly. Pandan leaves have a naturally sweet taste and soft aroma. Its flavor is strong and grassy with hints of rose, almond and vanilla, verging on coconut. Pandan shares an aroma compound with basmati rice, so many chefs looking to save money will flavor plain rice with pandan. Pandan also pairs well with coconut milk, sticky rice, turmeric and lemongrass and brings a floral essence to desserts. Try adding pandan to cocktails for a new, welcoming flavor profile. Fresh pandan leaves can be wrapped in a damp paper towel or plastic bag and stored in the refrigerator’s vegetable drawer, lasting about four days. You can always freeze or dry the leaves, but fresh is almost always better when it comes to herbs.
Creative ways to cook with pandan
Infuse in rice: Add a few pandan leaves to the water when cooking rice to impart a subtle, fragrant aroma. The rice pairs well with various dishes, particularly Asian and tropical cuisines.
Pandan extract: Make pandan extract by blending fresh pandan leaves with water and straining the mixture. This extract can be used to add pandan flavor to cakes, pastries, desserts and beverages. It’s a popular ingredient in dishes like pandan chiffon cake and pandan jelly.
Flavor soups and curries: Tie a few pandan leaves into a knot, and add them to soups, broths and curries during cooking. They infuse the dish with a delightful aroma and a hint of pandan flavor.
Steamed desserts: Use pandan leaves to line the bottom of a steamer basket before placing your favorite sticky rice or custard desserts on top. As the dessert steams, it absorbs the aromatic essence of the pandan leaves.
Coconut-pandan sauce: Combine pandan extract with coconut milk and sugar to create a delicious sauce. This versatile sauce can be drizzled over desserts, such as ice cream or sticky rice, or used as a dipping sauce for snacks like fried bananas or sweet potato fritters.
Pandan tea: Boil pandan leaves in water to create a soothing and aromatic herbal tea. You can enjoy it hot or cold, with or without sweeteners, according to your preference.
Cocktails and mocktails: Add pandan extract or a few pandan leaves to cocktails or mocktails for a tropical twist. They can be muddled with other ingredients or used as a garnish for an enticing visual appeal.
Pandan-infused syrups: Make pandan-infused syrups by simmering pandan leaves with sugar and water. This syrup can be used to sweeten beverages, drizzle over pancakes or waffles or even add a unique twist to cocktails.
Remember to remove pandan leaves from dishes before serving, as they are not typically consumed due to their fibrous texture.
“The most underrated ingredient is fresh herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme, cilantro, mint and flat and curly parsley. It would be faster and easier to use dried herbs, but fresh (organic whenever available) herbs are a delicious addition to all of our recipes.” – Price Beall, Truffles Cafe and Chow Daddy’s