The key to my aunt’s cá kho (Vietnamese braised fish) is a bundle of pandan leaves that she ties right into a knot and simmers within the braising liquid. It mellows the pungent fish sauce and brings brightness to the heady spices. After I was a scholar in Singapore, I might by no means get sufficient of chendol, a chilly dessert that includes wormlike pandan jelly and an assortment of toppings in coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. Whether or not it’s utilized in candy or savory dishes, pandan’s verdant inexperienced and nuanced aroma add a particular aptitude to all the things it touches.

What’s pandan?

Pandan is the widespread identify for Pandanus amaryllifolius, a perennial shrub belonging to the Pandanus genus of the screw pine (Pandanaceae) household. Out of 700 species below this genus, pandanus amaryllifolius is the one one with aromatic leaves (one other associated selection produces perfumed flowers which are distilled into kewra essence, a flavoring in North Indian delicacies). The leaves of different Pandanus species can be utilized to make handicraft comparable to mats, ropes, and baskets.

The pandan plant is acknowledged by its elongated blade-shaped leaves that resemble the highest of a pineapple plant (a similarity that earned the plant the moniker of lá dứa, or “pineapple leaf,” in Vietnamese, although it has no relation to the fruit). Native to South and Southeast Asia, it thrives in tropical situations and varies in dimension; a pandan shrub can attain someplace between 5 and 14 ft, with leaves from 1 to five inches vast.

“It appears like common grass in case you don’t know what you’re searching for,” says Brian Tran. “You may undoubtedly stroll by it and never understand you’re pandan.” Tran is the proprietor of Là Lá Bakeshop, a Vietnamese bakery in Toronto that makes use of pandan liberally in its pastries. One among its signature muffins accommodates a layer of pandan chiffon cake resting on a base of coconut-infused sticky rice, which jogs my memory of inexperienced glutinous rice sprinkled with coconut flesh and different candy toppings, typically offered by avenue distributors in Vietnam.

What does pandan odor like?

Pandan’s mighty energy is hidden in its leaves: Once they’re bruised and cooked they launch an intriguing aroma variously described as floral, grassy, or candy and musky. Pandan can star in a dish in addition to play a supporting position to intensify different elements. It whispers within the fluffy rice grains of nasi lemak, a preferred dish in Singapore and Malaysia that includes coconut rice served with crispy anchovies and peanuts alongside sambal; within the Filipino dessert salad buko pandan, pandan proclaims itself loud and clear within the type of a vibrant inexperienced jelly.

Pandan’s aroma is developed when a yellow pigment breaks down because the leaves wither, producing the risky compound 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (2AP). The compound can also be present in aromatic rice varieties comparable to basmati and jasmine, and within the odor of popcorn and crabmeat. Christopher Tan, a cookbook creator and culinary teacher who lives in Singapore, stories that he’s additionally detected notes of pandan in jasmine flowers, barley, lower grass, and hay.

“It’s grassy with out being earthy,” says Sam Fore, a Kentucky-born Sri Lankan American chef who runs the Lexington pop-up Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites. “It may be very shiny.”

To the Filipino chef and activist Angela Dimayuga, pandan’s style evades description. It’s a scent as a lot as a taste, “nearly translucent, if such a phrase applies — like water left to steep in a bamboo cup,” she writes in her ebook Filipinx: Heritage Recipes from the Diaspora. In the meantime, Yana Gilbuena, who travels round internet hosting SALO Sequence, a Filipino kamayan feast, likens its essence to “a grassy floral vanilla.”

Due to their similarity, pandan is usually coined “the Asian vanilla” or “vanilla of the East.” Tran additionally makes use of these analogies at his bakery to introduce this flavoring to curious clients. Cookbook creator Tan thinks the comparability makes a great sound chunk, albeit an oversimplified one. “The place I believe it does have some validity,” he says, “is the truth that each vanilla and pandan are versatile sufficient for use in each candy and savory contexts, and might good-naturedly play effectively with a reasonably wide selection of different flavors and aromas.”

The place did pandan originate?

Pandan’s earliest English reference dates again to 1832 in Flora Indica, a ebook by the Scottish surgeon-turned-botanist William Roxburgh. He described the leaves as “linear, tending to be three-nerved, apices reasonably broad, considerably spinous-serrulate” and their native land as Amboyna (now a part of the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, also referred to as the Moluccas). Nonetheless, pandan is an historic cultivar that had been discovered within the Moluccas, an east Indonesian archipelago, a lot earlier.

Pandan was primarily cultivated in Indonesia, the Malayan peninsula, the Philippines, and components of New Guinea traditionally influenced by Malay tradition earlier than it was delivered to different nations. (The genus identify, Pandanus, derives from the Malayan phrase for screw pine; in Malaysia, pandan is called pandan wangi, with wangi which means “aromatic.”) Some streets and neighborhoods in Singapore and Malaysia nonetheless have “pandan” of their names, seemingly reflecting the presence of assorted species of screw pine bushes that used to develop within the space.

What’s pandan used for?

“In Southeast Asian cuisines, pandan is used principally for aroma and secondarily for shade, and fairly often for each concurrently,” Tan says.

Many nations within the area share comparable strategies for extracting pandan essence. In nasi kuning (yellow rice), nasi minyak (ghee rice), and different rice dishes eaten throughout Malaysia and Indonesia, pandan leaves are tied right into a knot and added to the rice pot along with different spices. Vietnamese cooks prefer to steam pandan leaves with plain white rice to imitate the luxurious perfume related to the prized jasmine rice. You can even simmer pandan in sauces, stews, curries, or soups. Each dried and contemporary pandan leaves could be steeped with lemongrass to make a refreshing tea.

Illustration of folded pandan leaves on top of a bowl of rice.

To make use of pandan as a coloring, cooks mix or pound the leaves with water and pressure the liquid, which may then be added to batter, dough, custard, jelly, or any dishes that want a contact of inexperienced. That is how pandan makes its method into conventional treats comparable to bánh bò (honeycomb cake) and kaya (coconut jam), in addition to tropical renditions of waffles, chiffon cake, ice cream, and different in style desserts.

Whereas researching and writing his ebook The Approach of Kueh: Savoring & Saving Singapore’s Heritage Desserts, Tan got here to understand the in depth position pandan performs in kueh, a broad time period that encompasses a variety of dainty candy and savory treats in components of China, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Many kueh recipes function layers of pandan by way of totally different preparations, from steaming and simmering, to dry toasting and weaving the leaves right into a vessel to carry the kueh.

One instance is kuih seri muka (also referred to as kueh sarlat), a steamed two-tiered candy snack with a compact base of glutinous rice infused with coconut milk and pandan (with the occasional blue swirls from butterfly pea flower). On prime of this, you’ll discover a custard of eggs, coconut milk, and sugar, dyed inexperienced with pandan juice.

In the meantime, pandan is usually used as a savory part in Sri Lanka, the place it’s often called rampe. Fore, the Sri Lankan American chef, got here throughout rampe in previous recipe books, and its herbaceous grassy observe has been part of her cooking ever since.

“Everybody [in Sri Lanka] has a pandan plant that they use as part of their curries,” she says. “It’s one of many constructing blocks of Sri Lankan curries.” Utilizing a way known as tempering, she toasts pandan leaves and curry leaves in scorching oil to create a foundational observe that rounds out the flavour of a dish.

One other widespread option to infuse pandan’s aroma is to make use of it as a wrapper. In Thailand, the beloved dish pandan hen is made by wrapping hen morsels with pandan leaves after which deep-frying them. Within the FIlipino dish sinanglay na isda, a stuffed fish is wrapped in pandan leaves (or lemongrass) and simmered in a wealthy coconut milk sauce.

The place can I discover pandan?

Contemporary and frozen pandan leaves can be found at most Asian supermarkets. You can even search for pandan extract (in each clear and inexperienced type) and pandan paste (which has a thicker consistency) on-line and within the baking aisle of some well-stocked grocery shops.

To retailer contemporary pandan, Tan advises wrapping the leaves in a double layer of plastic luggage and putting them within the vegetable drawer or a wine fridge. Ideally the leaves ought to nonetheless be joined on the stem base to remain contemporary longer.

How can I take advantage of pandan in my cooking?

Whereas Tan prefers to work with pure contemporary pandan (which he thinks trumps the extract’s artificial notes), extract is the best way to go for many who don’t typically have entry to the leaves.

“It’s very straightforward to come back by, it’s cheap, you’ll be able to swap it for recipes that use vanilla,” says Tran. “Add it to sponge muffins.” It might not be a one-to-one equal, so be happy to regulate the quantity of extract to your style. Take note of the elements on the label as effectively, as extracts with added sugar may have an effect on the sweetness stage of your cake.

To Gilbuena, pure pandan juice offers dishes a extra delicate aroma however lacks the strong inexperienced that may be achieved with an extract. At Là Lá Bakeshop, Tran makes use of a mixture of each house-made and store-bought extract “for the eyes to eat as effectively,” he says.

When you’ve got contemporary or frozen pandan leaves readily available, Fore suggests steaming them with rice or making a stir-fry dish the place the pandan is cooked rapidly and nonetheless maintains its brightness. Keep in mind to discard the leaves earlier than serving as they’re very fibrous.

For a candy route, Tan recommends simmering shredded pandan leaves in easy syrup till they flip darkish inexperienced and limp. Pressure the liquid and use it in iced tea or cocktails, or over panna cotta or pancakes. “This may acquaint you with pandan aroma in its purest type,” he says.

Listed below are a couple of extra recipes to get you began:

Sam Fore’s Tempered Curry-Ginger Candy 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 Hen Curry)

Huy Vu’s Honeycomb Cake

Marion Grasby’s Pandan Hen

Giao Chau is a Toronto-based author with a selected curiosity within the intersection between meals, tradition, and identification. Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.