When Tony Tan was a little boy in Kuantan, on the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula, his family had a pandan plant growing in the garden alongside water spinach, tapioca and papaya trees.
“If my mother wanted pandan she would just open the kitchen door – I remember the way the house was built, the breeze would flow right through to the front. She’d get hold of a knife and slice off a few leaves,” the chef, cookbook author and cooking teacher tells Broadsheet. Tan runs a cooking school in Trentham, Victoria and has been writing about food for 20 years. “It’s a wonderful ingredient. You can chuck a few slices of turmeric and some pandan leaves into rice and this beautiful perfume will float through the house.”
Pandan is the common the name for pandanus amaryllifolius, a tropical plant in the pandanus (screwpine) genus. It’s slowly making its way into the lexicon of Western cooking, but in Southeast Asian and South Asian countries it’s ubiquitous, used in curries in Sri Lanka; in coconut rice and cakes in Malaysia and Indonesia; and in drinks and desserts in the Philippines, Japan and Thailand.
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“Pandan is indispensable as far as Southeast Asian cuisines go,” Tan says. “It’s used in traditional and contemporary dishes across the region. It has a kind of grass or floral flavour – some people call it the vanilla of the East – and that’s all correct depending on your nose and palate. It’s a gorgeous ingredient.”
Pandan can also have a nutty or fresh-bread aroma, and according to Sharon Kwan, chef and owner of Sydney Malaysian restaurant and food truck Sharon Kwan Kitchen, it can be a subtle or central flavour. “Often if there’s something that you can’t quite place in a dish, it’ll be pandan,” she says.
In Malaysia, pandan is used in bright green cakes and desserts, and as an aromatic for the rice accompanying nasi lemak or Hainanese chicken rice.
“The most famous pandan dessert [in Malaysia] is probably kuih dadar, a green pancake with desiccated coconut,” says Kwan. “Seri muka, a kind of slice with glutinous rice on the bottom and pandan custard on top, is also popular. Whenever I melt gula melaka [coconut palm sugar] for sago pudding, I add a pandan leaf for a subtle flavour.”
Pandan is such a common household ingredient in many Asian countries, it’s hard to say how long it’s been in use. As its popularity has spread to the West, it’s become common in food like gelato and doughnuts. Kwan and Tan have both made pandan panna cotta, and Kwan says pandan Portuguese egg tart recipes are making the rounds online.
Chris Duong says that when he and his mate Dylan Duong (no relation) dreamed up their Sydney deep-fried ice-cream food truck, Duo Duo, there was no question about including pandan on the menu. “The flavours of pandan-coconut are such a staple in Vietnamese desserts, and it’s one of the flavours from my childhood I wanted to create,” he says.
The aromatic leaf is used in Duo Duo’s gelato and deep-fried ice cream, and as a verdant glaze with kaya (coconut jam) on the pandan-coconut doughnut.
“It’s a long, fibrous leaf, pretty robust. For our gelato, we’ve got a machine that presses out the juice from the leaves. We have a good supplier of fresh pandan, but for home cooks it can be harder to find. There are frozen ones at Asian grocers, and often if you ask, they’ll have some in the back,” Duong says.
Pandan is known by many names. In English, it’s screwpine, and it’s rampe in Hindi, daun pandan in Malaysian, xiang lan in Mandarin and, in Vietnamese, it’s la dua, which means pineapple leaf. That moniker was probably earned because pandan’s spiky leaves look similar to a pineapple’s. Leaves grow in natural bunches, connected at the base. “It doesn’t multiply by seed but by root growth,” says Tan. “It will send out new shoots from the sides.”
It’s available at Asian grocers in Australia fresh, frozen or as an extract. Kwan prefers the frozen variety for its concentration of flavour. “I think the pandan grown in Australia isn’t as flavourful compared to the frozen ones that are grown overseas.”
Chef, recipe tester and co-founder of Filipino Food Revolution (and owner of a ragdoll cat named Pandan) Christine Caisip says Filipino cuisine typically uses extracts.
“You need quite a lot of pandan and it needs to be simmered for a few hours to get a strong flavour. The extract, though, is like ‘pow’. It’s so powerful,” she says.
In mainstream Filipino cooking, pandan is reserved for sweet dishes, of which buko (young coconut) pandan is probably the most famous. “It’s like a bright green fruit salad with tapioca and young coconut doused in sweetened condensed milk,” says Caisip. “We also have puto, which is a steamed rice cake, and biko, a dish made from glutinous rice, coconut milk, brown sugar and pandan. It can have a green colour, unless you use black sticky rice.”
Pandan’s use in the Philippines varies regionally. In Bicol, a cake called sinapot is made from grated cassava with coconut milk and sugar, and wrapped in pandan leaves to steam. Binagol from Visaya is similar, but mashed taro is used instead of cassava.
Although pandan’s popularity outside Asian communities has been ramping up, the ingredient was in the spotlight back in 2017 when Nigella Lawson declared pandan the next “it” ingredient. The “discovery” didn’t go over well, with Lawson accused of exoticising an ingredient that was already widely used outside Europe. Tan is kind, saying perhaps she just called the “food trend” too early.
“I think purists and traditionalists can get all knotted up,” he says. “We shouldn’t be so territorial about food. Ingredients are about sharing.”
Tan says his fascination with food comes in part because of the way ingredients travel and are incorporated into local traditions. Pandan is no different. “I would encourage people to look at pandan not just as an Asian ingredient. We are crossing culinary borders because this is what we are as adventurous diners, eaters and discoverers of food.”
Here are some of the best spots for pandan around Australia:
Hustlers – pandan punch
Sharon Kwan Kitchen – Hainanese chicken rice, sago pudding, pandan panna cotta (menu changes regularly)
Duo Duo – pandan-coconut deep-fried ice-cream, gelato and doughnuts
Bartega – Selene’s Ride cocktail
Gelato Messina – pandan-coconut sorbet
Sydney Cebu Lechon – pandan shake
Kariton Sorbetes – buko-pandan sorbet
Good Days Hot Bread – pandan-cream eclairs
Raya – “Auntie” pandan chiffon, pandan gelato, pandan kaya
Agathe – pandan flan with coconut
Core Roasters – pandan-kaya croissant toast
The Feast by Sandra – kuih dadar
Pandan Dessert Bar