I’m going to preface this story by telling you that what I am about to describe is something that you cannot find in Boise. You’ll find some number of frozen pandan flavored cakes, or possibly some sweet pandan flavored chips – but there is no fresh or frozen pandan leaves. You can find “pandan extract” but it is not the same.
Ok, so what the hell is pandan? Believe it or not it’s actually from a plant called screwpine. Long, slender, fleshy green leaves grow upwards, like the flowers of an amaryllis (it’s actually related to the amaryllis).
Pandan is earthy and remarkable. If you’ve tasted a number of kinds of Asian cakes you’ll instantly recognize the flavor (it’s what green mochi is made from). Oh yeah, pandan is bright green and is used commonly instead of vanilla. Perhaps most common in Vietnamese and Thai foods, another name for pandan is bai toey.
Now what would you ever use pandan for? The best use I’ve seen was at a Thai restaurant in Portland. The long, green pandan leaves were placed in clear water pitches and used to flavor the water instead of limes or lemons. So perfect. The pandan flavor seeps right into the water, and produces such a great display, too.
Coconut-pandan waffles are currently the new “hip” street food item in certain California cities.
Pandan custard or pudding is a common way to eat pandan in Thailand.
Chicken wrapped in pandan leaves is also a great use.
So, where can you get it? I tried to find pandan paste, which is the best way to integrate pandan into your pastries, but no local grocers carried it. So I purchased pandan extract. Not only is it bland, but panda extract is far too watery for most of my bakery uses.
Not even Uwajimaya in Portland carries the frozen or fresh leaves, and not the paste either. Just the water extract.
Eventually I located the frozen leaves (after asking ten people in one Asian grocer – and none of them knew!!!) after searching the frozen section high and low! I flew home with the pandan leaves from Portland – several packages even. I used a food processor to blend six leaves with a 1/4 cup of water. I then let that sit for several days and then squeezed out the extract.
I developed a cupcake recipe for the pandan flavoring and they are so light and fluffy with specks of pandan here and there.
Now, why is it called screwpine? I wish I could tell you. Pandan is not a pine at all.