often called the vanilla of the east, pandan recipes often have an aromatic flavour & a light green color- this tropical herb can be used in anything from pandan chiffon cake to baked chicken!
Growing up in Singapore, pandan is everywhere. It grows in our homes, by the sidewalks, is found in our food and even in our cars! (Our grandmothers tell us that dried pandan can drive away cockroaches so people toss it into their cupboards and cars, where it also serves as a natural air freshener. However, recently people have been saying that there is no evidence to prove this and that pandan may actually become food for pests, so maybe this is just an old wives' tale.)
There are many easy ways to cook with pandan:
- add fresh leaves to savory dishes such as curry (common in Sri Lanka)
- pop it into your rice cooker (pandan has the same aroma compound as basmati rice, so the 2 go very well together!)
- wrap whole pandan leaves around food such as chicken, before cooking (similar to how banana leaves are used)
- use it as a natural food colouring and flavour- this works very well in light sponge cakes! (The green comes from the chlorophyll in the plant)
- in baking e.g. pandan cake
What is pandan?
Pandan is also known as screwpine and, in the West, sometimes called Asian vanilla. It has long thin leaves and a delicate, grassy flavour/ smell- this may not sound appetising, but it works very well in food actually.
Pandan is widely used in South East Asian cooking and grows abundantly in the region- however, don't pluck any old pandan you see as there are over 600 species of pandan and, like aloe vera, not all are edible! The species that is widely used in cooking is Pandanus amaryllifolius.
Note: I do not recommend using pandan as a substitute for vanilla extract if you're looking for something that can create a similar flavour- the 2 taste and smell quite different, if you ask me! (I think pandan leaf is described as "asian vanilla" more to symbolise how ubiquitous it is rather than because it is meant to be a substitute.)
How to use
Fresh screw pine leaves have the strongest flavour. If substituting with dried or frozen leaves, you will need to increase the number of pandan leaves used. (If you can't smell anything from the dried leaves, it's time to toss them out.)
To extract as much fragrance from the pandan as possible, wash the leaves, dry and knot them, then use your hands to bruise the leaves before adding it to your rice cooker or curry. Remove the leaves before serving as they're too fibrous to be comfortably eaten! To use pandan as a flavouring or natural green colour, first turn your pandan leaves into pandan essence or pandan juice.
Pandan goes very well with young coconut & Gula Melaka, so you will often see these 3 condiments used together in the SouthEast Asian cuisines.
Note: the leaves sometimes have deceptively sharp edges so be careful not to cut yourself.
For more green coloured Asian recipes, Click here.
How to store
Wrap fresh pandan leaves in kitchen towel or a ziplock bag and they'll last in the vegetable compartment of a fridge for 2-4 days. Alternatively, they can be frozen for about 6 months.
How to grow
Almost every household in Singapore has a pot or 2 of pandan sitting around as it grows lushly in our tropical climate. It needs a lot of sunlight and humidity to grow so, outside of the tropics, may be difficult . I live in Singapore but my flat is sunlight-challenged so my pandan plant doesn't thrive. (It survives but barely grows bigger, which is atypical of pandan in Singapore.)
However, I do know someone who had a pot of pandan in the UK- apparently the trick is to place it by a sunny windowsill in a black pot (black absorbs more heat than brown coloured pots!).
Note: Pandan is a sterile plant- it rarely flowers- and you can only propagate it using suckers or cuttings.
Where to buy
You can get pandan in Asian supermarkets in Europe & US or order it online. Even if the fresh leaves are out of stock, they usually have bottled pandan paste.
Note: these usually don't look as appetising though- scroll down for a photo of a delicious dessert made with homemade pandan extract vs a scarily bright confection made from artificial pandan flavoring.
You can use them as you do fresh: wash, knot and add to the curry or recipe you are using them in OR you can rehydrate the washed leaves in hot water first. (Don't toss that water as it will be pandan flavoured- it can be used in your cooking too!) Note that dried pandan leaves will slowly lose their fragrance, so they can't be kept forever.
Pandan is usually paired with 1 or more of these ingredients in South East Asian recipes: coconut, palm sugar, lemongrass, turmeric, ginger, garlic, galangal etc
Other Asian garden recipes
If you're interested in growing your own food, you may also be keen on these tropical plant recipes:
- how to cook with tamarind
- what to do with curry leaves
- Kaffir Lime recipes
- cooking with lemongrass
- papaya milk
Here are some easy ways you can cook with pandan:
These buns can also be eaten as a sweet treat with this salted salted palm sugar syrup:
Sweets snacks & desserts
Pandan has quite a light flavour, and goes well with delicate desserts such as fluffy pandan chiffon cake and panna cotta.
Kueh dadar (also known as kueh ketayap) is a sweet spring roll that consists of a pandan flavoured wrapper and a gula Melaka-grated coconut filling. This is the first kueh I learned to make as it is my parents' favourite!
Traditionally, it contains egg in its crepe-like wrapper but a friend is allergic to eggs, so I came up with this vegan kueh dadar recipe. In the past, kueh dadar was always made with fresh pandan extract to flavour and colour the crepes, but recently more and more people have taken to using artificial pandan flavour and colour- you can always tell when the colour comes out of a bottle as the colour is a little scary!
Before you go, you may also be interested in these recipes: