I was born with an incredibly strong sense of smell, which ignites envy in other plain humans. What comes with this superpower is the unconscious tendency to associate familiar smells to past memories. Living in tropical Asia for the past 5 years, the smell that comes after drops of rain hit the equatorial soil takes me back to the holiday island I spent most of my time as a child, back in Brazil. So, it is not surprising that one of the earliest recollections I have from my first visit to Bali, in 1999, comes from the intoxicating pandan leaves scent filling the island’s cab’s air.
I found out the dark green leaves, which are extensively cultivated throughout tropical parts of South East Asia, is curiously used in various different scenarios.
While Bali uses pandan as part of Canang sari, the daily offering the local Hindus prepare to honour their gods, in Singapore, the nutty flavoured plant is utilised as an essential ingredient when making kaya butter (a custard-like spread made out of coconut milk, eggs and sugar). In Singapore, too, the plant is also used as natural food colour in chiffon cake, in Hainanese chicken rice, in mung bean soup, as a car air-refresher, and as a natural cockroach repellent.
Sri Lankans use the plant in their traditional curries, along with fennel, coriander, and fenugreek seeds, cinnamon and curry leaves, producing aromatic and mouth watering dishes, which secretly, I can't have enough of. In fact, since my last visit to the tear-shaped country, I have been doing weekly experiments in my kitchen, trying to perfect their exotic cuisine under my own roof.
India’s most traditional dishes of byriani is flavoured with the earthy plant, while other countries that commonly incorporate pandan in their diets, specially in rice dishes, desserts and cakes, are Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia.
According to researches, apart from repelling insects, honouring gods and being the essential ingredients of many Asian cuisines, pandan possesses amazing health benefits. The list goes on, but here are a just few of them.
Lowers high blood pressure
Helps with anxiety and stress
Has carcinogenic properties
Has anti-hyperglycemic effects
Pandan is either used fresh, dried or as a liquid extract. In Singapore the fresh produce is commercially available from the fridge section of supermarkets, or even better, if you have neighbours (or if yourself) live in a house, you’ll likely to get the fresh stuff straight from the ground.