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What Does Pandan Taste Like?

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Fresh pandan leaves next to a sponge roll

Pandan is a tropical plant with long narrow blade-like leaves that grow abundantly in Southeast and South Asia. Although it grows like a weed in the wild, it is also a farmed crop, producing a variety without any flowers.

If you’re considering growing pandan at home or have stumbled onto a bunch at your local market, you may be tempted to give it a try. Before you do, you’ll probably want to know what pandan tastes like? Keep reading to find out about its taste, texture, uses in the kitchen, and more.

Describing the taste of pandan

Pandan leaves have a sweet and mild vanilla-like flavor with a subtle undertone of rose and almond. Its taste has a tropical feel to it, with hints of white rice, coconut, and a grassy, floral aroma. The pandan leaf should not be eaten raw as it has no taste and is fibrous. Instead, it should be pounded, boiled, bruised, or even raked with a fork to release the aroma. Dried leaves don’t have any flavor either until processed.

Also known as the “vanilla of Asia”, pandan is used in Asian cuisine much the same way that western cooks use vanilla. Its profile pairs well with other tropical flavors, especially coconut, lemongrass, and turmeric. Possibly its most popular companion in cooking is glutinous rice, which is delicious when infused for a subtle hint of pandan.

An infographic describing the taste of pandan

Be careful when using a store-bought pandan concentrate in cooking. The flavor is intensely bitter and can overwhelm any food if too much is used. Use concentrates sparingly to add flavor and an impressive green shade to your dishes.

Culinary uses for pandan

Pandan is usually used in recipes, much the same way that bay leaves are used. The stalks can be tied up or cut into pieces, then tossed into the dish to add extra taste. Pandan leaves don’t get eaten though because the texture is too stringy and unpleasant. Following are some of the most popular recipes made with pandan.

1. Sweet dishes

Desserts are probably the best use for pandan. You can add sweet tropical taste as well as an inviting shade of green to the food.

Create a custard pudding called sangkaya bai toey, a classic Thai dish that includes dipping bread. Pandan is also delicious when used to flavor ice cream, shaved ice, cendol, chiffon cake, Crème brûlée, or pancakes. In Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia, the revered street food, Kueh Dadar, is a lovely crèpe flavored with pandan.

Dipping bread into a bowl of Sangkaya bai toey
Sangkaya bai toey is a tasty Thai dessert.

In the Philippines, buko pandan is a refreshing fruit salad comprising of coconut flesh, condensed milk, and pieces of pandan flavored gelatin (sago pearls).

2. Savory dishes

Although not as widely used in savory food, pandan brings a tropical flavor to food. The leaves are commonly used as a wrap, like banana leaves, with fish, chicken, meat, or vegetables. this technique is suitable for deep frying, steaming, or barbecuing.

Although the flavor is delicious, it is the fragrance that makes any dish special that uses pandan. Basmati, coconut, and jasmine rice all benefit from the addition of the leaves. Add the herb to curries, soups, and casseroles to add flavor, but remember to remove the leaves before serving.

Pandan leaves wrapped arounf chicken on a plate with rice
The leaves can be used like banana leaves for wrapping.

3. Drinks

Hot water infused with pandan leaves tied in knots makes a delicious tea with useful health benefits. Most people prefer to add an additional tea bag with a different flavor as pandan can be a little too much on its own.

Add the plant to coconut milk in tropical locations to stay refreshed and to deal with the oppressive heat.

4. Other uses

Pandan makes delicious candies, jams, rice cakes, cake frosting, and chewy jellies.

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Types of pandan

Try to find fresh leaves as they have the best flavor, and they also have the most intensity. Dried or frozen pandan is often more readily available. If this is your only option, use 2-3 times the amount that you would use the fresh ingredient. The dried leaves can be ground into a powder and added to food, or they can be rehydrated before use.

Fresh leaves can be turned into a paste by pounding them or grinding in a mortar and pestle, then mixing in a small amount of water. The solid pieces should be removed before adding as a flavoring to a wide range of desserts and savory dishes.

To make an extract, wash the leaves before cutting into pieces. Fill the blender and then add a half cup of water before processing until the leaves are well pulverized. Use a strainer to separate the solids, which should be discarded. The liquid can be used sparingly to make tasty Asian-inspired desserts.

Storage advice

Store fresh pandan in the vegetable compartment of the fridge, wrapped in damp paper towels. Expect the leaves to last up to four days. To store them for longer, freeze in an airtight container or a ziplock bag for up to six months.

Homemade pastes and extracts will last 10-20 days in the refrigerator. Commercial powders and extracts can be stored in a cool, dry place such as a pantry, for much longer.

Nutritional benefits

Pandan leaves don’t contain any significant levels of vitamins or minerals, however, they are rich in alkaloids, essential oils, and glycosides. In traditional medicine, the plant can be used as a laxative and to reduce symptoms of pain and fever. Source. It can aid in digestion and also be used as a hair conditioner to treat dandruff.

Recommended substitutes

If a recipe calls for pandan and you don’t have any the best option is to simply use vanilla. It won’t mimic the flavor as pandan is unique; however, the ingredient can be used anywhere that pandan is used in sweet desserts and it won’t be out of place. For savory dishes, you can try coconut which also offers a fragrant, tropical, slightly sweet flavor.

Fast facts about pandan

  • It is also known as screwpine leaf or screw palm in many western countries; Malaysians and Indonesians call it duan pandan.
  • Basmati rice has a similar aromatic compound to pandan, and chefs trying to reduce costs will add a small amount of pandan to plain white rice, selling it as basmati.
  • The plant is a part of the Pandanaceae family.
  • In Northern India, the flowers are great for adding fragrance to biryanis.
  • Commercial pandan products such as extracts do not taste the same as the fresh variety, and the color is usually a more intense green than the real thing.
  • If the pandan plant is not harvested it grows into a tree with leaves that grow to two meters in length. When the leaves are harvested frequently, it will remain a small shrub that produces smaller, narrow leaves.
A pandan plant growing in the garden
The pandan is a fast-growing plant.

Summing up

Pandan is one of those ingredients that provides a delicious depth of flavor. Used in moderation, it adds a subtle sweet flavor to rice, desserts, and even savory dishes.

If you’re thinking of using it for the first time you’ll find that pandan is available fresh from Asian specialty food stores and markets. You’ll often find it frozen too. The powdered form is readily available online, and a quick search will provide a range of suppliers. You may also want to grow your plants at home, but make sure you’re in a tropical climate because it won’t deal will cool dry weather.

Although its flavor is unique, it isn’t likely to offend fussy eaters – most will enjoy it. If it’s your first time cooking with the leaves, don’t use too much. It doesn’t seem like the leaves have much taste, but they provide a surprising amount of flavor given time to infuse into other surrounding foods.

Have you tried any exotic desserts from Southeast Asia? What is your favorite and why? We’d love to write about it! Let us know in the comments below.