The Pandanaceae family has gained fame for its otherworldly-looking fruits—giant, spiky green orbs with orange centers. But in the kitchen, it’s the pandan leaf (specifically those sprouted by Pandanus amaryllifolius) that’s the star. Extracts from the humble herb infuse everything from cakes to cocktails with brilliant green hues and floral flavors, earning it the nickname “the vanilla of Southeast Asia.”
Millions of people love the flavor of pandan leaf extract, but struggle to pin down its flavor and aroma profile. According to Saveur, it’s “like vanilla but with a grassy lilt and a tropical bouquet that verges on coconut plus a distinct note of … is that bubblegum?” One fan describes its bright sweetness as “an herby bubble gum, or licorice without the bite.” Another, who soothes his homesickness for Singapore with pandan, likens its aroma to “flowers, grass, popcorn, and hay.”
Southeast Asian cooks use this unique, herbal extract to dye dumplings, rice dishes, desserts, and drinks. Malaysians give onde-onde—poached rice flour dumplings rolled in coconut and filled with melted sugar—their distinct, verdant glow using pandan leaf juice. In Thailand, fresh pandan extract tints and scents khanom chan, a coconut and pandan steamed layer cake. Cultures across the Southern Pacific also use whole pandan leaves to season meat, wrap steamed dishes, and scent curries, as well as infuse ice creams, coconut milk, and cream-based sauces.
One of the most curious and popular applications of pandan is flavored chiffon cake, a fluffy, rich sponge cake. After World War II, Americans began exporting cake flour. By way of recipes printed on the side of the box, imported flour likely gave rise to chiffon cake in Asia. Homemakers encountered recipes calling for vanilla, an uncommon ingredient in the region, and instead substituted pandan. By the 1970s, pandan chiffon cake had stolen the limelight from vanilla, and it remains a cosmic-green crowd pleaser from Thailand to Indonesia today.
Need to Know
To make your own pandan extract, chop up the leaves and blend them with a small amount of water. Place the resulting paste in a sieve and squeeze out the juice. If fresh pandan leaves aren't available, some Asian grocery stores sell (sometimes artificial, radioactive-green) pandan extract. A word of warning: Like vanilla, the fake stuff is a far cry from the real deal.
Where to Try It
Chinatown Ice Cream Factory63 65 Bayard Street, New York, New York, 10013, United States
This no-frills parlor has Pandan Leaf ice cream, along with flavors ranging from Thai iced tea to durian and black sesame. Luckily, they also offer samples.
This custom-order Malaysian bakery pops up at Putney Market every other Saturday, offering cakes, cookies and kuih to curious shoppers.