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Pandan - The Vanilla of the East

From Hainanese chicken rice to kaya, pandan is such a commonly found ingredient in our daily hawker food. We can see its presence in Malay nasi lemak, Thai pandan chicken, peranakan nonya kueh, and pandan chiffon cake, one of the 17 best cakes in the world, as named by CNN.


Pandan is a tropical plant in the Pandanus (screwpine) genus. Pandanus is a genus of plant covering some 750 or so species but the one that we make use of to flavour our dishes is Pandanus amaryllifolius.

Pandan plants growing in clusters

Pandan is sometimes called “the vanilla of the East”. Indeed, our local food makes plentiful use of its sweet and mild aroma, so much so that one with cooking experience would have made use of it in one way or another. The sight of its presence in pots along HDB corridors undoubtedly tells of its popularity. The simplest way to use pandan for food is just by bruising a few of its leaves, tying them in a knot, and throwing the bundle into the rice cooker to cook with the rest of the rice ingredients. You can tell the rice is ready when the aroma fills the air of the kitchen. Perhaps the most extensive use of pandan is in desserts. For it can add layers to the taste of a simple soupy dessert or result in a matcha lookalike jelly in a kueh.


The kitchen is not the sole stage for pandan’s play. An unusual place you could find pandan is at the rear package tray of a taxi! Fresh pandan leaves are used not only to keep roaches at bay, but also serve as a natural fragrance.


Pandan leaves placed at the rear of a car

As for me, nothing comes close to this sheer enjoyment on a lazy afternoon - having a piece of solid green pandan chiffon cake and sipping a cup of hot tea containing garden flowers, fruits and cut bits of pandan leaves freshly harvested from the pond. Yes, you heard me right, pandan plants can be grown in water. In fact, it thrives growing in or next to water. Though this eastern vanilla is priced quite cheaply, costing slightly less than a dollar for a decent amount of leaves, I take pride in having grown it within reach so I will never have to worry about a shortage.


Calming Green Juan Tea contains dried pandan leaves

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