Pandan leaves come from the Pandanus amaryllifolius plant, a tropical member of the screwpine genus native to southeast Asia. This shrubby perennial plant has fan-shaped clusters of long, narrow leaves that produce a strong smell when wilted. Fresh pandan leaves have little odor. This plant has historically been used in cooking and to make household items such as baskets. Pandan leaves also contain compounds that repel some species of cockroaches and are a traditional insect repellent.
Leaves from the pandan plant have a sweet, musky odor and flavor when cut, bruised or wilted. When used in cooking, they produce a sweet, slightly floral flavor similar to American bubblegum, and a bright green color. Cooks tie pandan leaves in a knot and place them in soups to cook, or bruise or chop them for use in seasoned rice, pudding, drinks and other foods. They often use pandan along with coconut milk, lemongrass, glutinous or sticky rice and sugar. Pandan extracts and frozen leaves are available in ethnic specialty food stores outside the plant's native range. Pandan extract often contains extra green food coloring, according to the "Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings."
Other Cooking Uses
Some cultures use pandan leaves to scent and wrap some foods. For instance, in India, people toss the leaves into open wells to scent the water. Southeast Asian cooks wrap pandan leaves around pork, chicken, fish and balls of glutinous rice to protect and scent them while grilling, steaming or roasting the food. Some desserts also receive this treatment. According to "What Herb is That?," some cooks weave strips of pandan leaves into decorative serving baskets for rice and savory dishes.
When dried, pandan leaves are tough and flexible. Historically, these leaves served as house thatching. They have also been woven into sails, baskets, floor mats and clothing. According to "What Herb is That?," women in the Pacific Islands wove split pandan leaves into "grass" skirts.
Taxi drivers in Malaysia and Singapore hang bunches of pandan leaves in their taxis to discourage cockroach infestations. People also use these bunches around the home. Pandan leaves contain several repellent chemicals, including 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (2AP). Extracts of these leaves have been shown to be less effective than compounds taken from some other plants, including lemongrass and clove, but they do repel American and German cockroach species.
Medicine and Cosmetics
Pandan leaves produce a diuretic effect when consumed in large quantities. They are also used in treating some skin conditions. Traditional medicine practitioners use the roots of this plant as an anti-diabetic treatment. Pandan leaves' strong, sweet smell makes them a desirable ingredient in perfumes and other scented cosmetics.
- "Ethnic Culinary Herbs"; George Staples et al.; 1999
- "Field Guide to Herbs & Spices"; Aliza Green; 2006
- "Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings"; Susheela Raghavan; 2007
- "What Herb is That?"; John Hemphill et al.; 1997
- 9th National Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme Congress 2003: Pandan Leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius Roxb.) As a Natural Cockroach Repellent; J. Li et al.; 2003
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images
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