Pandan — maybe you know it better by its other name, “screwpine.” Orrr, maybe not. These leafy green plants, which look very similar to spider plants, are a veritable unknown in the Western culinary world, but they are a common ingredient Southeast Asian sweets. You’d never grind up a spider plant and put it in a baked good (nor would we ever recommend it), but pandan adds something special to baked goods. Let’s learn a little more about this leafy green plant and how it’s used in the kitchen.
What is Pandan?
Pandan is a common Southeast Asian plant made up of long, spiky green leaves and yellow flowers. It’s commonly grown at home and readily available in many markets. The pandan plant also gives way to spiky fruits, which are indigestible by humans without first cooking them. One 19th-century explorer learned this the hard way when he tried to eat a raw fruit got blisters on his tongue and temporary digestive issues in return.
The most-used part of the pandan plant is the leaf, which is available in fresh, dried, or frozen forms. Fresh pandan leaves have been described as having a vanilla rose-like flavor or a less powerful licorice flavor. Dry pandan leaves have no flavor on their own and must be rehydrated and bruised or boiled before using, but their flavor does not compare to fresh. Frozen leaves are almost as fragrant and flavorful as fresh pandan. The most special aspect of pandan is the fact that it gives sweets a bright, green color, though it is also used in some savory dishes.
Pandan’s flavor pairs well with glutinous rice, lemongrass, milk, brown sugar, and turmeric. It is often used in glutinous rice-based desserts, jellies, chiffon cake, mochi, coconut drinks, ice cream, and more.
To make pandan extract to make desserts green, choose fresh, green pandan leaves — the brightest you can find. Wash five leaves thoroughly, then cut them into small pieces. Place them in your blender and fill with just enough water to cover the leaves. Blend until there are no big chunks of pandan left, then strain the liquid into a mason jar. The extract will keep for up to one week, so adjust the amount of leaves you are using for the amount of pandan you plan to use. It should be used like vanilla extract, so you should rarely need more than a teaspoon. You can save the pandan pulp to infuse other dishes with pandan flavor.
Pandan can be used to make wun gati bai tuey, a layered, agar-agar-based coconut jelly from Thailand. Try adding a drop of pandan extract to the clear layer of this Burmese Coconut Jelly, which is very similar to the Thai dessert.
Once you’ve made pandan jelly, you can even cut it up to make buko pandan, a Filipino dessert that combines coconut cream, milk, shredded coconut, nata de coco (a Filippino jelly-like food made from fermented coconut water), and pandan jelly.
Pandan-infused coconut is often a topping for Ongol Ongol Singkong, an Indonesian dessert made by combining grated cassava with coconut, agar agar powder, coconut milk, and sugar. They’re topped with flaked coconut that is steamed with fresh pandan, which lends its subtle flavor.
It can also be used to flavor baked goods. In this gluten-free Pandan Cupcake recipe, the buttercream frosting is infused with pandan extract instead of vanilla. You can also try adding pandan extract to light-colored baked goods, like these Vanilla Birthday Cake Cupcakes, these Matcha Green Tea Cupcakes, and these Turmeric Chocolate Snack Cakes.
Or, use it to add flavor to fillings. The vanilla custard filling of these Pandan Kaya Buns is infused with pandan flavor. The same could also apply to these Chinese Steamed Custard Buns, these Custard Creme Filled Doughnuts, and these German Custard-Filled Streusel Bun.
In the Philippines, fresh pandan is knotted and added to the pot while cooking rice, which gives it a sweet aroma and subtle flavor. Use pandan-infused rice in dishes like this Filippino Sticky Rice, this Filippino Rice Cake, this Sweet and Sour Pineapple Sticky Rice, this Black Sticky Rice Pudding, or use it for mango sticky rice and sweet congee (rice porridge).
Because pandan pairs so well with glutinous rice, it also pairs well with mochi. Try adding a few drops of pandan extract to the dough of this Strawberry and Red Bean Mochi, this Grilled Matcha Mochi, and the mochi balls in these Matcha Mochi Strawberry Popsicles.
You can apply the same rice cooking method to the rice you’re making for savory dishes, such as rice to pair with Thai dishes like this Tom Kha Soup, this Cut Rice Noodle Soup, this Thai Curry Red Rice Soup, and this Roasted Pepper Thai Red Curry.
In Southeast Asian countries, fresh pandan leaf is also wrapped around meat before grilling. Try pairing it with dishes lime these Thyme Grilled Mushrooms, these Grilled King Oyster Mushrooms, this Grilled Zucchini With Herbed Bread Crumbs, and these Grilled Tofu Steaks With Orange Ginger Glaze.
Unless you live near an Asian grocery store, specifically one that specialized in Southeast Asian ingredients, pandan can be tricky to come by. But if you do, you should be able to find pandan in all its forms — fresh, dried, frozen, and even powdered. Pandan extract is often available, but it is usually made with artificial ingredients, so it’s best to try making your own. Pandan paste is also available, but it often contains artificial colors that have been linked to health concerns.
If you can’t find pandan in any of these forms in stores, you can buy dry pandan leaves, like these Burma Spice Pandan Leaves, online. One .5-ounce bag costs about $13.
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