Pandan is a herbaceous tropical plant that grows abundantly in Southeast Asia. In Chinese, it is known as "fragrant plant" because of its unique, sweet aroma. The cultivated plant, which is similar to the palm, features upright bright green leaves that are long, slender, and spiky. The leaves are used for their flavor in many Thai and Southeast-Asian dishes. Pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius) is also sold as a paste, extract, and powder, which are used to flavor desserts.
What is Pandan?
In Southeast Asia, pandan leaves are used to lend a unique taste and aroma to flavor desserts and drinks as well as savory dishes. Pandan leaves, which are sold fresh, frozen, and dried, can also be used to wrap savory foods, such as chicken or sticky rice. The leaves impart these foods with an aromatic note and also give the dishes visual appeal. The paste, extract, and powder tint the ingredients with a green hue while contributing flavor. Pandan is inexpensive, with a much lower price tag than vanilla bean.
Available As: fresh, frozen, and dried leaves, and paste, extract, and powder
Place of Origin: Southeast Asia
Distinctive Flavor and Aroma: sweet and floral
There are different uses for pandan, also known as screwpine, depending on its form, whether leaves, paste, extract, or powder. When whole leaves, pandan is used as a wrapping before steaming or frying foods, similar to banana leaves. However, pandan is much thinner in width compared to the broad banana leaf, so it is important to note that the juices may seep through.
The paste and extract are added to recipes as a flavoring, much the way we use vanilla flavoring in the West, while the powder is included in baked goods and tea. All of these products impart a green color to the dish.
How to Cook With Pandan
Fresh leaves have the strongest flavor; if using frozen or dried pandan leaves, it is best to double or triple the amount called for in the recipe as freezing and drying diminishes the flavor. When using frozen pandan, thaw the leaves at room temperature, rinse under cold water, and dry well before using. The dried pandan leaves need to be rehydrated before using, or they can be ground up into a powder.
To make pandan paste, pound fresh, pandan leaves into a paste, removing the fibrous pieces and adding water sparingly. Pandan extract can be made by grinding the leaves with some water and then straining the mixture; the liquid that remains is the extract. Only a small amount of paste or extract is needed when adding to recipes.
What Does It Taste Like?
Pandan leaves have a naturally sweet taste and soft aroma. Its flavor is strong, described as grassy with hints of rose, almond, and vanilla, verging on coconut. Pandan shares an aroma compound with basmati rice, so some cooks looking to save money will flavor plain rice with pandan.
Pandan's flavor pairs nicely with ingredients such as coconut milk, sticky rice, turmeric, and lemongrass, and brings a floral essence to desserts. Pandan also adds an interesting and welcome flavor to cocktails.
Where to Buy Pandan
Pandan leaves can be purchased fresh, frozen, or dried at some Asian food stores, as well as online. The leaves can be packaged whole or cut into pieces. Make sure none of the fresh leaves is brown or shriveled, and that the frozen leaves aren't discolored or covered with ice crystals.
The paste, extract, and powder can also be found in Asian markets and online retailers. It is important to read the ingredients—pandan leaves and water are all that should be listed, but there are often many brands that include additional ingredients that will mask the plant's unique flavor.
Fresh pandan leaves can be wrapped in a damp paper towel or plastic bag and stored in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator where they will last for about four days. Pandan leaves can also be frozen. Arrange in one layer on a baking sheet and place in the freezer; once frozen, put into a zip-top bag and return to the freezer where they will last for about six months. Dried leaves, as well as paste, extract, and powder can be stored in the pantry. Homemade paste and extract should be kept in the refrigerator and will last for one to three weeks.
Nutrition and Benefits
Thai people have been aware of pandan's health benefits for many years. The leaves have been shown to relieve headaches, cramps, and chest pains, and may even lower blood pressure.