Pandanus leaf is an aromatic and delicious blade-like leaf from the exotic pandan (pandanus amaryllifolius) plant. This is one of the smallest varieties of pandanus plant, growing just a few feet tall. It is also the only pandanus plant with aromatic leaves. Their nutty fragrance, which is similar to hay, develops once the leaves wilt. Once pandanus leaves are dried, however, they quickly lose their scent.
The unique flavor and scent of the pandanus leaf adds interest to a variety of dishes. It’s commonly called “the vanilla of Asia” because the ingredients can be used in similar ways.
Pandanus leaf is a popular ingredient in many Southeast Asian and South Asian delicacies, including desserts, drinks, and some savory dishes. It is commonly paired with coconut and chocolate.
Cooking With Pandanus Leaf
Pandanus leaf is commonly used both fresh and dried. Pandanus leaf paste extract also imparts the distinctive flavor of pandanus leaf to dishes. As the fresh leaves die quickly, many people prefer the dried leaves or leaf extract. Leaf extract retains the distinctive aroma of pandan, which can make it very appealing for some cooks. However, pandan pastes and extracts are often enhanced with green food coloring. The vibrant color can be off-putting for people wanting a more natural-looking meal.
Fresh pandanus leaves require more intensive preparation than dried ones. They are commonly torn into strips, tied together, then placed into a cooking liquid to infuse their flavor. Once the cooking process is complete, the fresh pandanus leaves are removed, much like bay leaves or bouquet garni. Fresh pandanus leaves can also impart a subtle flavor when wrapped around meats, like chicken and seafood, prior to cooking.
Dried pandanus leaves can be used in a variety of ways:
- Applied directly: Dried pandanus leaf can be sprinkled directly into dishes, much like any other herb or spice.
- Rehydrated: Dried pandanus leaf can be steeped in warm liquids, like water, stock, or coconut milk for between 10 and 20 minutes. The longer you steep the leaves, the more the pandanus leaf’s green color will infuse the liquid. You should then pour the liquid into your dish.
- Ground: Dried pandanus leaf can be ground into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle. This fine powder works better for desserts and drinks than rehydrating or simply sprinkling the leaves into the recipe, as it can be distributed more evenly. The pandan leaf’s flavor and aroma also becomes more pronounced when it’s ground.
Pandanus leaves are a key ingredient for some dishes cooked throughout Asia, like pandan cake, a coconut rice pudding called payesh, and coconut jam. Many Asian countries also use pandanus leaf to enhance their traditional dishes. Pandanus leaf is a common addition to rice and curry dishes in Malaysia and Indonesia. In India, pandanus leaf is also used in rice dishes like biriyani. It’s also the perfect foil for coconut meat in the Filipino dish buko pandan and the country’s popular drink, maja blanca.
Pandanus Leaf: History and Origination
The leaves from the pandanus amaryllifolius plant have been used for centuries for a variety of purposes. Their potential for boosting the flavors of food and drink was recognized early. Traditionally, people throughout Asia steeped pandanus leaves in boiling water for a refreshing drink. They’d also add the leaves to their pots of rice, creating an infused side that went perfectly with the chicken they’d wrap in more leaves.
In addition, people in various Asian nations have traditionally used pandanus leaf extracts to treat fevers, internal inflammations, urinary infections, coughs, indigestion, and even flatulence. The leaf extract was also believed to be a cardiotonic that improved heart health. Drinking pandan tea was a popular remedy for all kinds of aches and pains.
Cultivation of Pandanus Leaf
Unlike many varieties of pandanus, which grow wild on the islands and coastal areas of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans, the pandanus plants prized for their leaves are rare in the wild. However, they can be readily cultivated from branch cuttings. Pandan plants are cultivated across Southern India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, peninsular South East Asia, and Western New Guinea.
Once established, pandan plants grow at a moderate pace. The way they grow depends on how much growers interact with them. If left undisturbed, a pandan plant will grow into a small palm-like tree with large leaves, measuring up to 6.5 feet, and no branches. However, if its prized leaves are harvested regularly, the pandan plant will grow like a shrub. When it takes this form, the leaves will be much smaller, measuring no more than 30 inches.
The pandan plants can look so different, depending on how they’re grown, that some people have mistaken them for different species. If a shrub-like pandan plant is left alone, it will go back to its palm tree-like state.
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Source: Burma Spice
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