This tropical plant gives foods a nutty flavor and surprising color


Nongkran Daks, chef and owner of Thai Basil in Chantilly, Virginia, recently served a customer who made her feel like a Dr. Seuss character. After ordering the restaurant's Thai custard, he scoffed at the green tint of his dessert.

"He said: 'Custard is supposed to be beige. I will not eat green custard,' " remembers Daks. "And I thought, is this 'Green Eggs [and Ham]'?"

Daks's sweet, fragrant dish gets its emerald color from pandan, a tropical plant found throughout Southeast Asia. It's long been a staple of Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese and Indonesian cuisine, though the ingredient is becoming more ubiquitous. In October, British cooking celebrity Nigella Lawson deemed pandan "the new matcha."

Sometimes called the vanilla of Southeast Asian cooking, pandan has leaves that lend a slightly sweet and nutty hint to any dish they grace - plus that unmistakable green hue. The plant is also so aromatic that some people use the dried leaves as an air freshener. "It's very light and fresh and delicate," says Daks, who makes her own pandan extract at Thai Basil by blending the plant with water and squeezing it through a cheesecloth. 

Snocream Company, a small Taiwanese shaved ice shop in Annandale, Virginia, likewise uses fresh pandan leaves in its sweets. Mei boils the leaves, mixes the strained liquid into his shaved ice base and freezes it. He then runs the frozen block across the blade of a slicing machine for ribbons of bright green ice that melt in your mouth like snow. "People think it's mint because of the color," Mei says. "But the flavor is closer to a coconut. It's subtle."

Because pandan has a hint of sweetness, it's most often used in desserts. However, the plant is a common ingredient in many savory Malaysian curries and some Vietnamese chicken dishes. At Mondayoff, a Vietnamese restaurant in Brooklyn, co-owner Benjaporn Chua uses pandan in the marinade for gai yang bai toey, a traditional grilled chicken dish. Following her mother's recipe, Chua cooks buttermilk, cilantro, Thai chile peppers, garlic, galangal and fresh pandan leaves. After it cools, she uses it to marinate chicken thighs for hours before grilling them. "It gives the chicken a little sweetness, and you get a lot of fragrance," Chua says of the dish, which is among the new restaurant's most popular.

Pandan is available in pre-bought extract form, which is usually more concentrated than the homemade version, with an almost neon-green color.

Chef Russell Smith at the Source in Washington, D.C., uses pandan extract in ice cream, and pastry chef Mollie Bird uses it to flavor the cream filling in doughnut holes at Kyirisan. "I've played around with boiling the leaves, but you can't get the same intense color," Bird says. "It's really hard to get that just from the leaves."

Still, many prefer the real thing. Daks from Thai Basil is particularly skeptical of pandan extract. "I don't trust it," she says. "I don't know how long it's been on the shelf, and I don't know how clean it is when they made it." In other words, she will not eat it, Sam I Am.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Food

Best bites: Newman’s Own Honey Apple Cider Vinaigrette
Best bites: Newman’s Own Honey Apple Cider Vinaigrette

At a time when so many foods are lauded as extreme and flavor-forward, it is refreshing to come upon a product that is understated and pleasant. Newman’s Own Honey Apple Cider Vinaigrette offers a mild apple flavor that tempers the tang of apple cider vinegar with the moderate sweetness of honey. It’s a natural combination, enhanced by...
My husband is a vegetarian, but my children and I are not. What will make everyone happy?
My husband is a vegetarian, but my children and I are not. What will make everyone happy?

The Washington Post Food staff recently answered questions about all things edible. Here are edited excerpts from that chat. Recipes whose names are capitalized can be found in our Recipe Finder at washingtonpost.com/recipes. A: Have you thought of making things that you can adapt for the different needs of your family? Maybe you're not up for doing...
Americans waste about a quarter of the food they buy
Americans waste about a quarter of the food they buy

The mass quantities of food Americans waste every year has staggering environmental consequences, according to a study published Wednesday. "Our data suggest that the average person in the United States wastes about a pound of food per day," said the University of Vermont's Meredith Niles, one of the study's authors along with researchers...
Today’s Special: Leftover cheeses can be used for quiche, soups or omelets
Today’s Special: Leftover cheeses can be used for quiche, soups or omelets

I love to cook dishes that are comforting, generous and full of flavor, like the foods my mom used to make. We loved cheese in any form in our house — from grilled cheese sandwiches to macaroni and cheese and cheesecakes. No other food is so ideally suited to cooking as cheese. Fortunately, my refrigerator is always full of cheeses like good...
Diabetes quick fix: Chicken and garlic greens with spicy sauteed potatoes

Top grilled chicken with baby greens for a surprisingly different dinner. In this recipe baby greens, also known as field greens or mesclun, are sautéed with garlic as a colorful topping for chicken. If you can’t find the baby greens in the supermarket, you can use a soft lettuce such as bib. Sautéing the greens for a minute enhances...
More Stories