Nigella Lawson may have harped on about how it will become “the next matcha” in Europe, but in Southeast Asia, pandan leaves have been – well – almost everything to the people: natural food colouring, natural flavouring, insect repellant, air freshener, food wrapping, even a token of love. Thais know it as bai toey hom, Malaysians as daun pandan, the Japanese as takonoki, but the fragrant screw pine, as they are known by the western world, all offer the same benefit – its subtle, soothing aroma.
Making Scents of Pandan
Very little is known about how or when the herbaceous tropical plant arrived into Thailand, but pandan has been used in Thai cooking since the Ayutthaya era.
Growing as commonly as weed, the sweet-smelling leaves would’ve been easily accessible from anywhere. You needn’t have green thumbs to have a garden full of pandan! While still on the plant, the leaves have little fragrance, but once extracted and crushed, the soothing scents are released, leaving anyone catching a whiff of it totally entranced.
Cooking with Pandan
Pandan is sometimes called “the vanilla of Southeast Asian cooking” with the glaring difference being the price tags. In a local Thai market, a bunch of pandan sells for just under 60 cents while one vanilla pod would cost around 3 USD. But not all good things need to cost an arm and a leg and pandan leaves are a fine example. Local Thai wisdom has enabled Thais to reap the benefits of the sweet and mild aroma of pandan in a variety of ways.
A common practice in the olden days and still used today when boiling rice is to tie a pandan leaf into a knot and throw it into the rice cooker to render the grains that subtle, sweet aroma.
Pandan water is one of the most refreshing thirst quenchers. Just grab a bunch of fresh leaves, boil them in water for several minutes and strain the water through a cheesecloth. Chill and drink on a hot day and Bob’s your uncle. Note: pandan-flavoured water is usually good to drink for about 3 days before it goes off.
Pandan leaves are perfect as food wrapping and popularly used in dishes such as gai kor bai toey (chicken wrapped in pandan leaves). Not only do they add fragrance to the meat during the cooking process, they also retain the meat’s moisture leaving them nice and juicy when cooked. The leaves are also used as little cups in Thai desserts such as taco. Whatever you do, don’t make the rookie mistake of eating the pandan leaves! There would be pandan-monium.
Pandan leaves can be made into a paste with the juice extracted to flavour Thai desserts such as kanom chun, kanom tom bai toey, or kanom piak poon bai toey.
If you ride in Thai cabs often enough, you’ll eventually see a bunch of fresh pandan leaves in the back of the passenger seats. Don’t worry, they’re not the driver’s groceries. The leaves are intended as natural fragrance to keep the car smelling, well, less like a cab.
Although not commonly used as insect repellant in Thailand, fresh pandan leaves are used to keep roaches at bay. Since the roaches breathe through their skin, fragrance particles from the fresh leaves can clog their skin, suffocating them. For this reason, a constant supply of fresh pandan leaves left in the kitchen is the natural cockroach repellant Thais swear by.
Say it with pandan
Long before text messaging, WhatsApp and Instagram, there was pandan. That’s right, it took the most creative (and bravest) of men to fold dozens of pandan leaves to look like roses, arrange them into a bouquet and offer them to a loved one. Makes the dating game in the modern world seem like a cakewalk!
Taking a leaf from the book of traditional medicine
As the cherry on top, pandan leaves also contain numerous health benefits. Thai people have been relying on the natural healing properties of pandan leaves for decades. The roots and leaves are boiled to make tea and works wonders as relief for chest pains, cramps, spasms, headaches or even to lower blood pressure. The dried, crushed leaves are made into a powder, mixed with water to form a paste and massaged onto the scalp to heal dandruff. There are numerous pandan-based medicines in traditional Thai pharmacies that offer treatment for skin fungus, arthritis, even some forms of cancer - the list goes on.
Where to get pandan
Pandan leaves are available throughout the year. They’re readily available at all fresh markets. If you’re in Bangkok, try Or Tor Kor market, Klongtoey market, Samyan market or buy them in bulk at Pak Klong Talad flower market. In Singapore, you can get them from most wet markets including Tekka Centre and Chinatown Complex Smith Street Market. In Hong Kong, you will be able to find them in Thai grocery shops.
Pandan powder is easily found at specialist bakery shops or online.