Grocery Ninja: Pandan, the Asian Vanilla

Photograph from tisay on Flickr

The Grocery Ninja leaves no aisle unexplored, no jar unopened, no produce untasted. Creep along with her below, and read all her mission reports here.

Photograph from tisay on Flickr.
Chicken wrapped in pandan leaves and grilled. Photograph from doubtless on Flickr.

Before I knew vanilla, I knew pandan. Mind-boggling, I realize, but I was well into my teenage years before I set eyes (and greedy hands) on a plump vanilla bean, whereas my family had a pandan plant growing right at our doorstep. In fact, the corridor we shared with our neighbors was lined with pots of it—Southeast Asian cooks use pandan leaves to scent their dishes so frequently that it would be unthinkable to not have any on hand.

Also called screwpine, pandan (like vanilla) lends itself to both sweet and savory dishes. One of my earliest tasks as mom’s kitchen helper was to run to the door, pluck a handful of pandan leaves, and rinse the dirt off them for her “meez.” Mom would tie the leaves in a big knot and toss them into her pot, use them to line steamer baskets, wrap them around meat for grilling, or pound them with a mortar and pestle to extract their sweet, faintly grassy, emerald green essence. From plain, steamed rice and rich chicken curries to light-as-air chiffon cakes and wobbly jellies, pandan would add an unmistakable, wonderfully fragrant note to the dishes.

Taste being 75 percent smell, I associate the “taste” of vanilla with that of cream and sugar – the ingredients used most frequently to tease out vanilla’s floral-woody scent. Similarly, I tend to associate the “taste” of pandan with that of coconut milk – an ingredient it marries remarkably well with. Once cooked, the hint of grass vanishes, leaving behind a subdued, lightly floral fragrance. Just because it’s light doesn’t mean it lacks punch though. This fragrance is so distinct and carries so pleasingly on the soft, tropical breeze, that local bakeries always have a waffle iron going at their door, churning out stacks of piping hot pandan waffles. (My fondest memories of high school involve heeding its siren call with my friends – following our noses to the bakery during breaks and ordering a waffle apiece. For a dollar, you walk away with a perfectly crisp, buttery specimen, trying not to burn your hands and lips in your eagerness to wolf it down. And for a few cents more, the waffle lady will slather on generous lashings of creamy peanut butter, nutella, or kaya – to push it just that little bit further off the bliss meter).

Pandan is used in preparing the green, chewy, squiggles in Indonesian cendol.

Eric Setiawan on Flickr

I like to think of pandan as the everyman’s vanilla. Inexpensive and readily accessible (even if you have black thumbs, they’re usually thrown into your bag gratis by the vegetable seller at the market), pandan is the proletarian worker to vanilla’s bourgeoisie. You may not be in Southeast Asia, California, or Florida (where the plant thrives), but the frozen leaves can usually be found in Asian groceries, and the bottled stuff – pandan paste and pandan essence—work just as well. I wouldn’t rush to replace the fresh leaves in its lightest of preparations—in clear, Cantonese dessert soups or tong sui, for instance – but everything else (rice cooked with coconut milk, gluten-free kuih muih, the green, chewy, squiggles in Indonesian cendol) is fair game. And, if you’re still unconvinced by my unabashed ode to pandan, Vosges – that maker of incredible Haut Chocolat – has released a sublime pandan ice cream in its Hautes Glaces collection. And everyone knows they can do no wrong.