The Pandan Leaf, the Vanilla of the East
The pandan leaf is the aromatic essence most commonly used in food right across South East Asian countries as well as in the Indian sub-continent, Sri Lanka and in the Pacific Islands beyond.
The pandan is a ubiquitous herb that sprouts narrow and long shard- like leaves that normally turn limp in the tropical heat of the afternoon and straighten out in the cool of early morning .
In Asia, just about everyone learns to wash rice to prepare for cooking as soon as they are tall enough to reach the sink. In my day an important task would be to pick out the stones and chaff out of the rice that came with the sack of rice from the rice fields of Asia. And children with their nimble fingers were always given the task of “picking the rice” and rinsing it until the starch was removed and the water ran clear.
The drill after that was to cut off a pandan leaf from the garden, wash it then run the tines of a fork through its length, tie the shreds into a knot and insert deep into the rice. Water a finger digit above the rice would be added and the rice left to boil either in a rice cooker or in a pot on the stove. As the pandan cooked with the rice, the whole house would be suffused with the aroma of pineapple and grassy notes. Once cooked, the rice retains that essential aromatic quality especially when the rice is dished out onto plates.
It you have often wondered about those strange Asian tastes and seen odd looking green sponge cakes that look suspiciously like washing up sponges this is an explanation. When a few leaves are sliced and pounded into a pulp to extract the dark green aromatic essence, it is used in desserts and cakes . It is also specifically used in a delicate sponge cake which turns a light olive green, a colour quite foreign to bakers in any other culture.
My Australian friends who come with me on a tour of Cabramatta seldom understand that an olive green in cakes can be palatable and the aroma most pleasing, especially when cooked into soft and fluffy chiffon cakes.
In India, the pandan extract from the flowers of the pandanus tectorious variety, called Kewra, that is stronger in aroma than our delicate pandan aromas has been used for centuries by the Moghul cooks as a flavouring for their rice dishes including biryani and rice pilafs. This essence will keep for over two to three years if the bottle is tightly capped and refrigerated. In Sri Lanka, however, the pandan leaf is used as in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, sliced or folded into their rice dishes added for aroma and flavor .
Many Asians weave the narrow leaves of the pandan into tiny triangular baskets then fill it with sticky rice or sweet potato steamed until soft The Indonesians cook grated tapioca into pandan baskets for a flavorsome tea-time snack. I enjoy serving fresh oysters in shells, grilled with a tiny sliver of bacon, garnished with a drop of sweet chilli sauce and lime juice. Both pack a double whammy of aroma and flavor, when served on a piece of pandan leaf that is fresh and clean.
You may be able to get some pandan leaves from any South East Asian grocer or look for it in your local farmer’s markets where Thai or Vietnamese grocers may have some, tied up in bundles. Use a leaf for your rice dish and freeze the rest. The leaves may turn a light grey with freezing but when steamed, the flavours are retained although lighter in flavor and aroma.
There are more uses for this simple leaf that you can imagine: some are useful while others are quirky but effective. While travelling in South East Asia , you may find pandan leaves placed in kitchen cupboards and shelves where they are said to be effective in keeping away cockroaches. Friends have told me that as long as the leaves are changed often, the insects do keep away.
The most quirky of all is that most amazing habit of taxi drivers in Malaysia who strew pandan leaves at the back of their taxis, on the shelf behind the passenger seats. It is not a religious custom as some of my friends thought while travelling there. Ask any taxi driver why and they will admit that after a long day of driving in the tropical heat, the air gets stuffy and sweaty. Pandan leaves do impart a sweet refreshing aroma to the overworked taxi.
The humble pandan also makes its presence felt especially at Malay weddings when small baskets of shredded pandan dipped in water are left at the front door and around the wedding couple to perfume the home. As the water evaporates, the perfume swirls through the festival home, adding another dimension to the food coming from the kitchens.
We should not confuse the domestic variety, the pandanus amaryllifolious , our pandan, with the variety of prickly pandanus thickets that I found growing on the outskirts of Darwin. These were the same ones I had the good fortune to encounter while I was travelling by car with my daughter Anushiya and suffered a stroke in the year 2000. I was driving and Anushiya navigating.
We were searching for fruit farms growing mangosteens and durians out of Darwin. I must have blacked out when I hit a truck, that set the wheels of my car screeching into a sideways skid which propelled us onto the tallest thicket of strong green stems that held the car upright with their strong prickly yellow-green shards.
No aromas this time, but scratches and stings from the thorny ends of prickly stems. Shocked by the bang, I regained consciousness, looked around and then glanced at my daughter, asking her how we had got there as we gingerly moved out of the thicket of green plants.
And so I finally had a chance to study the different varieties of pandanus at close quarters, very very close quarters.