The aroma is indescribable — sweet, floral and nutty with a hint of grassiness is the best I can manage — and its effect on the psyche is pleasant and soothing. Add a leaf to rice while cooking and the term “plain rice” loses its meaning.
For us who grew up with it, we often crave it subconsciously. A meal with the smell of pandan engulfing the room feels like being enveloped in the comfort of one’s home and being in tune with one’s native culture.
Pandan is Pandanus amaryllifolius
What is pandan? It belongs to the family of Pandanaceae, tropical and subtropical flowering plants of which there are over 900 known species. Only one, the Pandanus amaryllifolius is used in cooking.
We used to grow pandan in the garden. The long, narrow leaves burst out like a spray. Pluck a leaf and you can hardly make out any distinctive smell. But put it in food and it reacts to heat. It is only during cooking, and after, that you start to appreciate its wonders.
I’ve once read a description that pandan is to Southeast Asia what vanilla is to the West. It’s a good analogy.
Use of pandan in Southeast Asian cooking is widespread as it flavors both sweet and savory dishes. The leaves themselves are not edible. The trick is to coax the aroma and flavor from them and transfer both into the food you’re cooking.
Add pandan leaves to rice and stews
The most common use for pandan leaves is to add them to rice before cooking.
You take a leaf or two, tie them into a knot and drop it into the pot of rice. The rice will absorb the aroma and flavor of the pandan leaves during cooking. Discard the pandan leaves before serving the rice.
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Knotted pandan leaves can also be added to stews. Chicken or duck curry cooked in coconut milk with pandan leaves is phenomenal.
Extract pandan juice to flavor sweets and drinks
To use pandan for sweets and drinks, you need to extract the juice. Because the leaves are inedible for being too fibrous, you can’t simply chop and add them to cake batter or to a pitcher of water.
To extract pandan juice, cut the leaves into small pieces. Place in a food processor and add hot water. Allow to cool before processing into smithereens. Strain into a bowl. Press the chopped leaves against the strainer to squeeze out all the juices.
You can keep pandan extract in the fridge in a tightly covered jar. It will keep for a few days.
Try cooking coconut pandan crepes (kuih dadar) with freshly-made pandan extract.
Buko-pandan dessert and drink taste and smell more refreshing when made with fresh coconut extract and unflavored gelatin instead of substituting the more convenient commercial pandan-flavored gelatin.
Make pandan-infused simple syrup
If you prefer a pandan-flavored sweetener over plain pandan water, make a simple syrup using pandan leaves.
Tie about six pandan leaves into a knot, place in a pot, pour in six cups of water and add six cups of sugar. Boil until the sugar dissolves. Cover and allow to cool to room temperature. Transfer to a tightly covered jar and keep in the fridge. Use within a week.
The simple syrup can be added to freshly-squeezed citrus juices and cocktail drinks. Pandan-flavored simple syrup is especially good with fresh lime juice.
Wrap chicken, fish and meat in pandan leaves before cooking
Outside of Southeast Asia, Thai pandan chicken is probably the most well-known dish cooked with pandan leaves.
In this case, you don’t just throw in the leaves. You don’t use pandan extract either. Whole pandan leaves are used to make Thai pandan chicken.
Cubes of marinated chicken fillets are individually wrapped in pandan leaves before frying or grilling. Try lamb in place of chicken and it’s absolutely wonderful too! Not a meat lover? Try cubed fillet of a firm and fleshy fish. Amazingly good!