Spices Unearthed: Pandan Leaves (Screwpine)

Fresh green pandan leaves (screwpine) - the Asian vanilla spice

Spices are not only about adding flavor and improving health – they have the power to transform the color of a dish.  Turmeric for yellow, paprika for red, butterfly-pea flowers for blue, and Pandan Leaves for Green

What food would you dye green?  A cake, of course. 

A common sight in bakeries and morning markets in many Southeast Asian countries is a light-green colored chiffon cake.  The cake has been naturally dyed green by fresh pandan leaves that have been pounded or blended into a rich, green paste.

Natural green dye from pandan leaves (screwpine) to make green chiffon cake

What does that green taste like?  Your eyes might perceive a veggie-like flavor, but pandan imparts a warm, nutty, sweet, piney flavor to cakes and other desserts. It’s no wonder pandan is nicknamed Vanilla of the East or Asian Vanilla.

But unlike vanilla, this leaf isn’t principally a dessert spice.  In Thailand, marinated chicken pieces are wrapped in pandan leaves and deep-fried for a delicious appetizer called Gai Ob Bai Toey (Thai Pandan-Wrapped Chicken).  And in Malaysia, the long, narrow blades are tied into a knot – to make the leaves more compact and to release the essential oils – and added into the rice cooker to produce a fragrant coconut rice called Nasi Lemak.

How to tie pandan leaves (screwpine) into a knot for nasi lemak

The pandan leaves used in cooking are from the shrubby, tropical plant Pandanus amaryllifolius – one of over 600 different pandanus plants (otherwise referred to as Screwpine because of the spiraling pattern on the bark of some of the species).

Pandan leaves or screwpine, growing in a pot at home

Pandanus amaryllifolius stands out among the rest because of its pleasant aroma, which is strongest when the leaves have slightly dried and wilted a day or two after harvesting. 

A week after harvesting, that sweet, comforting smell is gone.  So if you bought some fresh pandan leaves, here are a few recipe ideas to use them up before it’s too late…
malaysian pandan chicken recipe
Pandan ChickenSeason with Spice
Best nasi lemak family recipe
Nasi Lemak (Coconut milk rice) - Season with Spice
indonesian ginger tea recipe wedang jahe
Ginger Honey Tea with Pandan - Cooking Tackle
Best bubur cha cha family recipe
Bubur Cha Cha - Season with Spice