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 knot a bunch and toss it into their cupboards and cars, where it also functions as a natural air freshener. However, recently people have been saying that there is no evidence to prove this and the pandan may actually become food for the pests, so maybe this is just an old wives’ tale.) There are many easy ways to cook with pandan:
- add it to curry
- pop it into your rice cooker (pandan has the same aroma compound as basmati rice, so the 2 go very well together!)
- wrap foods, like 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)
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.
How to use pandan?
Fresh pandan leaves have the strongest flavour. If substituting with dried or frozen leaves, you will need to increase the number of pandan leaves used.
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 juice.
Note: the leaves sometimes have deceptively sharp edges so be careful.
How to store pandan?
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 pandan?
Almost every household in Singapore has a pot or 2 of pandan sitting around. 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!).
Pandan is a sterile plant- it rarely flowers- and you can only propagate it using suckers or cuttings.
Here are 7 easy ways you can cook with pandan:
Pandan mantou bao buns (Vegan)
Pandan panna cotta
Pandan has quite a light flavour, and goes well with delicate desserts such as chiffon cake and panda cotta.
Vegan Kueh dadar
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 homemade pandan juice 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!