First Encounters: Pandan, The Vanilla of Southeast Asia (2024)

Ever wonder what makes mango sticky rice so mesmerizing? It’s not the coconut milk, it’s not the glutinous rice, nor the scrumptious mango. It’s something impossible to describe. A fragrant aroma that’s unlike anything else. What is it about this dish that’s so sensual, intoxicating, and complex, yet at the same time, deceptively simple?

This mystery was unlocked when my husband’s aunt, who had recently returned from her culinary adventures in Thailand, explained that the secret ingredient to this incredible dish is pandan leaves, or simply pandan. You never see this ingredient on any plate of mango sticky rice, but when its presence is missing, the dessert is decidedly dull, like my many futile attempts at this dish. Finally, the reason for my failures is clear: no pandan, no flavor! It’s not that I was “bad” at cooking Thai food per se; I just didn’t have the right ingredients. What a relief!

Fresh pandan leaves are never sold at Asian supermarkets in America. The most likely reason is that it’s a tropical plant, and transporting delicate leaves across the ocean would likely ruin them. Pandan is an ancient plant that was domesticated by humans long ago and is extinct in the wild (as far as we know). While it is cultivated extensively in Southeast Asia for culinary use, it can only be propagated through cuttings due to its sterile nature (it almost never flowers). It is known as the vanilla of Southeast Asia because it is used to flavor almost every dessert you can find. From cakes and cookies to donuts and ice cream, it is as ubiquitous as vanilla in Western cultures. Like vanilla, pandan doesn’t have any particular taste (it’s neither sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or umami). What it brings is its unique aroma like no other. You can’t mistake it when you smell it. It’s been described as a floral scent, but not in a soapy type of way. The specific chemical compound responsible for its scent is 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, which is also responsible for the aroma of freshly baked bread or piping hot, steamed rice. When you close your eyes and imagine the most fragrant jasmine rice, it’ll give an idea of the scent of pandan.

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The only time I’ve ever seen fresh pandan is in Asia, and because it is still quite foreign to me, I get giddy every time I see it. This past week, I finally bought my first bunch of fresh pandan leaves and brought it ”home” to our AirBnb. This time in Singapore, I finally had a tiny kitchen, but I didn’t have everything necessary to attempt mango sticky rice. My desire to make something with this pandan undeterred, I decided to make pandan water by boiling the leaves in water. I also had a leftover coconut that I had purchased earlier that day to drink the coconut water, so I thought I’d crack it open and scrape the coconut flesh into the mixture.

These were all fine ideas in theory, but when I got to work, reality set in. If you’ve ever tried to open a coconut, you’ll know that it is damn near impossible without some heavy duty equipment. I was not properly prepared to process my coconut, which was encased in its original packaging. It was an adorable way to present coconut water, and I thought maybe the way it had been processed would make it easier for me to crack open.

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After peeling off the shrink-wrap, I saw that all I had to work with was a small hole they drilled into the nut (technically, it’s a seed). The toughest tools I had were a chef’s knife and a knife sharpener. It took a good half hour to crack it open, with heavy banging that sounded like I was a carpenter hard at work. Half the time, I was afraid I would either break the knife or something would slip and send me to the nearest emergency room. Fortunately, dear reader, I never shy away from a cooking challenge.

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Once I had all the ingredients processed and in the pot, all I had to do was boil it. I was still suffering from jet lag, so I decided to take a nap while it simmered. What I woke up to was the signature scent of pandan mixed with an unappetizing smell of grass. Clearly, there’s some skill (skill I didn’t possess) to using pandan. I wasn’t sure why my pot of pandan-coconut water smelled mostly right, but occasionally I’d get hints of hay — the type for horses.

If I had to guess, I indiscriminately used the entire bunch, but should’ve been more selective. I should’ve removed the leaves that were turning brown and had a grassy smell to begin with. I thought the grassy smell would go away during the boiling process, but I was clearly wrong. Instead, boiling it seemed to concentrate all the fragrances, both good and bad.

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At the end of the day, I was left with one cup of pandan-coconut water that, for the most part, had all the elements I wanted. I would just randomly get unpleasant whiffs of grassiness. It wasn’t overwhelmingly bad, so I thought with enough sugar, I could make it work. Perhaps a pandan-coconut French toast? With eggs and some old bread, it would’ve been quick to beat the eggs with the pandan-coconut water, soak the bread in it, and pan fry. Even though that would’ve taken only a few minutes to do and I had all the ingredients, I couldn’t fight the food-rich environment I was in. Singapore has such a plethora of good food, so there was always something better to eat. Thus, my experiment stayed in the fridge the entire time and ended up down the drain by the time we left for Bangkok.

Oh well, better luck next time. Don’t worry, though. This is just the beginning of my relationship with pandan, I promise. 😀

First Encounters: Pandan, The Vanilla of Southeast Asia (2024)

FAQs

What is the vanilla of Southeast Asia? ›

The tropical herb pandan has been dubbed “the vanilla of Southeast Asia” but that's doing pandan a disservice. Sure, it can be used like vanilla in cakes and desserts, but the flavor—earthy, sweet, and a touch grassy at once—is capable of much more, including savory uses.

Does pandan taste like vanilla? ›

Like vanilla, pandan doesn't have any particular taste (it's neither sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or umami). What it brings is its unique aroma like no other. You can't mistake it when you smell it. It's been described as a floral scent, but not in a soapy type of way.

What country is known for its vanilla? ›

Madagascar remains the dominant vanilla producer, growing and exporting over 80% of the world's vanilla as of 2022. The island nation off Africa's east coast provides ideal humid, tropical conditions for growing the Vanilla planifolia species, known for its sweet, creamy flavor.

What is the meaning of the name vanilla? ›

: lacking distinction : plain, ordinary, conventional.

What is the English name for pandan? ›

Pandan, also known as screwpine, is a tropical plant prized mostly for its long, blade-like leaves.

What is the difference between vanilla and pandan? ›

While vanilla has a creamy, musky, caramel fragrance, pandan's is a cross between freshly steamed rice and freshly mowed lawn. And, when blended down into a paste or extract, will lend its striking, grassy hue to whatever it touches.

Is pandan a Filipino flavor? ›

Pandan is a tropical plant that grows mostly in South East Asian countries. In the Philippines, pandan is widely used in sweet dishes like cakes, ice creams, and other types of desserts. It is also used as flavoring for drinks like hot or iced tea. What we are going to make today is both dessert and a drink in a glass.

What is the flavor profile of Southeast Asia? ›

Southeast Asian cuisine is known for its bold and vibrant flavors. It often combines a variety of ingredients such as herbs, spices, and condiments to create a harmonious balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy tastes.

Is Southeast Asia a rose or unicorn? ›

Others, like “unicorn”, create what otherwise would not exist. In between lie names that simultaneously describe and invent reality. “Southeast Asia” is one of these. Some who study the region treat it as if it were Shakespeare's rose: a reality existing independently of its name.

Which country is the capital of vanilla? ›

Just imagine what the air smells like there. Although it's Mexico that vanilla beans trace its roots to, 80% of this fragrant spice is grown in Madagascar today.

What is vanilla of the East? ›

Pandan leaves are also called 'Vanilla of the East'. 'Annapurna' or pandan leaves are often used while cooking rice in Indian households. This leaf is known to change the flavour and aroma of the rice, making it more delightful.

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