Features 2 minutes 01 November 2018

Ingredient Spotlight: Pandan

Find out why pandan is one of the most beloved ingredients in Thai cuisine.

herbs ingredients Thai

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 coloring, natural flavoring, insect repellant, air freshener, food wrapping, and 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 and soothing aroma.

A Thai dessert mixture made with pandan.
A Thai dessert mixture made with pandan.
Pandan's Sweet Aroma
Very little is known about how or when the herbaceous tropical plant arrived in Thailand, but pandan has been used in the country's local cuisine since the Ayutthaya era. 

And one needn't have green thumbs to grow a garden full; growing as commonly as weeds, the sweet-smelling leaves are easily accessible from anywhere. 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 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 knowledge has enabled the Thai people to reap the benefits of the sweet and mild aroma of pandan in a variety of ways. Available throughout the year and widely found either fresh or frozen at specialty Asian markets, while pandan powder can easily be found online.

Here's how to make the most of your pandan at home.

Add to Boiling Rice
A common practice in the olden days—and still used today—is to tie a pandan leaf into a knot and throw it in the rice cooker. The result? Grains with a subtle, sweet aroma.

Cooking rice with a touch of pandan.
Cooking rice with a touch of pandan.

Pandan Water
For a refreshing thirst quencher, simply grab a bunch of fresh leaves, boil them in water for several minutes, strain the water through a cheesecloth, chill and drink.

Editor's Note: Fresh pandan-flavored water can last for up to three days before turning rancid.

Pandan water, the perfect thirst quencher.
Pandan water, the perfect thirst quencher.

Wrapping Food
Pandan leaves are perfect for wrapping various pieces of protein, and popularly used in dishes such as gai hor bai toey (pandan-wrapped chicken, commonly served with a dipping sauce). Not only do they add fragrance to the meat during the cooking process, but they also retain the meat’s moisture leaving them nice and juicy when cooked.

In Desserts
Pandan leaves can be made into a paste, with the juice extracted to flavor Thai desserts such as khanom chan (an ancient dessert typically consisting of nine layers), khanom khrok bai toey (made of tapioca flour, coconut milk and pandan leaves), or kanom piak poon bai toey (pandan sweet pudding).

Kanom chan is a Thai dessert made with layers of pandan flavored flour.
Kanom chan is a Thai dessert made with layers of pandan flavored flour.

Other Uses For Pandan

As Air Freshener
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, intended as natural fragrance to keep the car smelling, well, less like a cab.

Pandan leaves are the perfect natural air freshener.
Pandan leaves are the perfect natural air freshener.

As Roach Repellant
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, the fragrance particles from the fresh leaves can clog their skin, thus suffocating them. For this reason, a constant supply of fresh pandan leaves left in the kitchen is the natural cockroach repellant Thai people swear by.

As a Love Gesture
Long before texts and DMs, there was pandan. That’s right, it took the most creative (and bravest) of men to fold dozens of pandan leaves to resemble roses, arrange them into a bouquet and offer them to a loved one, making the current dating game of the modern world seem like a cakewalk.

As an Alternative Medicine
Pandan leaves contain numerous health benefits, and Thai people have been relying on its natural healing properties for decades. The roots and leaves are boiled to make tea, working 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 and even some forms of cancer.


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