WTF are Pandan Leaves?
Alternate Names: Screwpine Leaves, Kewra/Kewdaa, Rampe, Ban Lan, Toey/Taey/Tey Ban
I’m going to refer to these as “pandan leaves” since that was the name first introduced to me. They are the leaves of a herbaceous plant native to Southeast Asia, where it’s cultivated for use in cooking as a flavouring element. And when it comes to certain dishes in Indo-Malay cooking, I’ve been told on good authority that pandan leaves are absolutely essential to achieving an authentic taste.
The problem is they’re almost impossible to find, unless you know what you’re looking for. I was originally searching for these leaves over 5 years ago and basically gave up hope until I was in the back area of a basement-level grocery store in Chinatown about a month ago, and I found a package of frozen pandan leaves by complete coincidence. Now that I’ve been researching their use in more detail, I’ve discovered that Indian food-sellers would probably refer to Pandan as “Kewra”, and I am 99% positive I’ve seen Kewra Water and Kewra Extracts at several Indian markets. This excites me. Once again, understanding the multiple translations of the ingredient’s name would’ve saved me a lot of time (years, in this case). The search, however, is half the fun.
Pandan leaves themselves are not typically eaten – they are used to enhance other flavours and to offer its distinct aroma. This is achieved in a few different ways, either by steeping the leaves in hot liquids (tie them in a knot and drop them in, remove when cooking is done), pounding the leaves to extract the oil, processing the leaves with a liquid then straining the solids out, wrapping the leaves around foods, or even by creating a cooking vessel out of the leaves (wikipedia says you can weave a rice basket out of them, go figure). The aroma it imparts is based on this compound, which also gives jasmine and basmati rice and white bread it’s scent. It can be described as slightly nutty, grassy and generally “plant-y”, like what you’d smell if you were in a greenhouse.
Typically, I’ve seen it used for rice dishes such as nasi lemak (coconut rice), pulaos, and rice puddings. It’s also used for a pandan chiffon cake and apparently pairs well with chocolate (I may experiment with this) in addition to coconut. In India, kewra water is used to flavour sweets and drinks.
A non-food related benefit of pandan is that the volatile oils responsible for it’s flavour and aroma act as a cockroach repellent. Something to remember, anyway.