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Pandan from A to Z: 26 things to know

Pandan from A to Z: 26 things to know

What is pandan? And what is pandan flavor? 26 interesting facts and figures about this delicious tropical plant that is ingreasingly being used in kitchens.

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Ayam masak merah. This is the casseroled chicken typical of Malay cuisine which calls, in this variant, for pandan leaves in addition to chilli pepper, coriander, citronella, star anise, ginger and turmeric.

Bouquet. Almonds and vanilla, together with floral and grassy notes: such is the sweet, enveloping bouquet of flavors released by pandan leaves when cooked or freshly extracted.

Christopher Tan. The well-known food writer and cookery teacher, has written a fascinating tribute to pandan: in Blades of Glory published by Saveur, Tan not only reveals the secrets and recipes for cooking with these remarkable leaves, but also offers some highly enjoyable anecdotes. Such as the one which describes pandan as an inebriating blend of flowers, herbs, hay and… popcorn!

Desserts. Pandan leaves are undeniably eclectic in the boundless universe of fine dining desserts: from the complexity of a ewe’s milk mousse with cream of pandan and caramelized puffed rice signed by Graham Hornigold, executive pastry chef of the international Hakkasan Group, to the ethereal simplicity of a chiffon cake by Malcolm Lee of the starred Candlenut restaurant in Singapore, not forgetting the spring rolls with pandan and chocolate cheesecake, served with tapioca sauce by Tammy Alana, chef of the Alizé at Palms Casino in Las Vegas.

Extract. The extract of these leaves makes an excellent natural additive which, as well as colouring cooked or infused foods with a soft shade of pastel green, also confers a well-balanced aroma of vanilla (and not only). Most experts recommend preparing it as and when needed from fresh or frozen leaves. It is also possible to find its artificial equivalent on the market: chefs and pastry cooks, however, refuse adamantly to use it since it colours foods excessively and also gives them a somewhat sickly flavor.

Filipino. In Philippine cuisine, it is the essential ingredient of many variants of the popular buko salad: the resulting dish is a fruit salad (made from fresh fruit or morsels of gelatine or coconut) wrapped in an aromatic jelly-like cream. Fiber Pandan leaves yield some particularly strong fibres which are used for making ropes, mats, hats, baskets and nets.

Gai hor bai toey (Thai pandan-wrapped chicken). These are the traditional savoury-sweet wraps typical of Thai cuisine: the recipe contemplates marinating the morsels of meat in coconut milk before wrapping them in pandan leaves. This is followed by a double cooking process involving steaming and frying in rapeseed oil: the former enhances the floral bouquet of the leaves, while the latter caramelizes the sugar of the marinade, to give the pandan leaves a pronounced flavour of hazelnuts.

Hairy Bikers. David Myers and Simon "Si" King, the popular British duo of BBC fame, also known for their foodie "pilgrimages" on two wheel vehicles, have often praised pandan, which frequently appears in their recipe books and numerous TV productions.

Instagram. The growing popularity of pandan is also due to its undeniably spectacular visual impact: the color and the shapes of its leaves give creativity a chance to such a huge amount of uses.

Jelly. Pandan extract can be mixed with coconut milk and agar-agar to become a jelly-like treat for enjoying in ice-cold cubes.

Kuih bingka ubi. Also known as kue bika ambon or kuih bingka, this is a dense creamy dessert of the Indonesian tradition whose mixture contains tapioca, egg and coconut milk, aromatized with pandan leaves.

Leeds. In the English county town of West Yorkshire, the 2017 Michelin Guide highlighted the excellent cuisine of the Ox Club, whose menu includes a refined pandan ice-cream served with black rice pudding, peanuts, lime and coconut.

Moode. Typical of the Udupi district in Mangalore, South West India, this is a special bread made from fermented rice and lentil batter (known as idli) which is steamed in special cylindrical moulds lined with pandan leaves. The resulting mixture is airy and light, and off a pleasing grassy aroma.

Nigella Lawson. It is the opinion of the famous journalist and British TV presenter that pandan will be the new antagonist of matcha and avocado and, at any rate, one of the hottest and most performing food trends.

Ondeh-ondeh These traditional little Malaysian desserts are made from rice soaked in pandan extract, which colours the rice in a nice bright green colour: it is then shaped into little balls filled with gula melaka (that is to say, palm sugar, also known as “Malacca sugar") and finally sprinkled with grated coconut.

Pandan Chiffon Cake. The classical, extremely tall and light US leavened cake whose recipe was imported into South East Asia around the fifties, presumably thanks to the packaging of special self-raising cake flours, has been given an exotic take with an amazing pastel green colour. Extremely popular starting from the Seventies, it then caught on in Indonesia and Singapore, where it is still the quintessential cake for celebrations and anniversaries.

Quality. Sold fresh in bunches, pandan leaves can be found and bought on the stalls of Far Eastern markets or in stores specialized in Asian products: they must be young and tender, bright green in colour and firm and elastic to the touch. They are also available dried, frozen and vacuum packed, as well as in cans in the form of fresh leaf extract.

Rice. Pandan leaves can transform mundane rice into a rice dish with the same taste and aroma as refined basmati or jasmine rice: just add a few leaves bound together to the water you cook your rice in.

Species. There are 600 known species of the Pandanus genus: the most commonly used in cooking is certainly the Pandanus amaryllifolius, whose leaves are employed. Other species worthy of mention are the fascicularis (or odorifer) and the utilis. The male flowers of the former give us an oil known as kevda or kewra, a distillation called otto and a floral and fruity aromatic water also called kewra. The latter’s fruits, on the other hand, yield a floury pulp which can be eaten once cooked.

Tea. In many Thai restaurants, such as in the acclaimed establishments of Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok in Portland (Oregon) and New York, it is customary to serve a cold "tea" of pandan leaves. It is made by bringing the water to the boil and adding one pandan leaf for each litre; stirred from time to time, it is left to rest long enough and finally strained, before being served cold or iced. Pandan tea may also be served hot, after boiling the water and leaving the leaves to brew with ginger and cardamom.

Unique. It is the opinion of Christopher Tan (see above) that, when used in cooking, pandan can develop different aromas according to the recipe: in one of his versions of kue bika ambon (see kuih bingka ubi), he explains that this combination of ingredients together with the leaves, has unexpectedly developed an intense aroma clearly resembling that of damask roses.

Vocabulary. The leaves of Pandanus amaryllifolius are generally known as pandan (often as south east Asian vanilla as well). However, this ingredient also goes under the name of rampé in India and Sri Lanka (where it appears in curry), pulao pata in Bangladesh, bai toey hom in Thailand, dứa thơm/lá nếp in Vietnam, chan xiang lan in Mandarin, takonoki in Japan. And then again, screwpine in the Usa, kathey in Arabic, scrupalme in Norway, pandanuz in Hungary, schraubenpalme in Germany, pandano in Spain and Italy.

Waffles. The local name of bánh kẹp lá dứa is given to the Vietnamese waffles whose batter is made from white flour, rice and tapioca, sugar and coconut milk, with the addition of pandan which, together with its aroma of vanilla and almonds, also gives this food its unusual green colour.

Xxl. The Pandan leaves' length may vary varying between species from 30 cm to 2 metres or longer, and from 1.5 cm up to 10 cm broad. They grow on the top of the plant in crowns and may be spiny.

Yotam Ottolenghi. One of the most active chefs in promoting new and, above all, exotic ingredients in Great Britain: one of his many recipes which have caused a buzz in the media is this rice and pandan pudding with mango and lime syrup.

Zero. Is the nutritional value of pandan: its "value" in fact is all in the aroma and colour. Apart from the extract, which totals a mere 10 in calories and 2 in potassium... but this would mean consuming 100 grams of extract!


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