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Not vanilla at all: The key ingredient is here

Farah Yameen | Updated on January 08, 2018

Subtle hints In savoury dishes, pandan is usually bruised in order to release its flavours without colouring the entire dish green Photo credit: Shutterstock   -  shutterstock

Like nothing else: Pandan is sometimes erroneously described as the vanilla of the East   -  Shutterstock

Double role: While north Indians reserve it for special dishes such as the biryani, Odiyas use pandan extensively in everyday cooking Photo: Shutterstock   -  Shutterstock

Pandan, the humble ingredient in Eastern kitchens, gets its moment in the sun

Some time last month, Nigella Lawson (of the fairy-lit kitchens and the come-hither voice), declared pandan leaves the new matcha of the culinary what’s-what. Something she has previously done with avocado. With the result that everyone scrambled to get one and retailers in India began selling the humble maakhan phal (or as it is sometimes quite literally translated, butter fruit) at ₹100 apiece. Reports also claim that her endorsement pushed up avocado sales by as much as 30 per cent. Food blogs in the West, therefore, duly went crazy writing about the pandan, although they are yet to beat avocado toast frenzy levels.

While I have no proof of this, I suspect that people in Southeast Asia shook their heads in mild amusement, much like the time the West discovered what they like to call ‘Turmeric Latte’. For, the pandan is a humble ingredient in Asian cooking. And while leaves are more sparingly used in India, the essence of the pandan flower is quite ubiquitous in north Indian deserts. If you haven’t googled it yet (and you shouldn’t, as a sign of respect for the venerable grey hairs of print), we are referring to kewra. We went ‘oooh’ too., for the record. For, who would have thought that our own kewra would make it to The Times and Nigella Lawson would declare it her as new favourite ingredient!

The pandan, it turns out, has some 600 species and at least 36 different kinds grow in India, mostly on the east coast in Ganjam district in Odisha and the islands of Nicobar. In the Nicobarese variety (Pandanus Parkinson), it is neither the leaves nor the flower that is eaten. Instead, the wedged fruit is roasted to make a sweet flummery-like preparation that I would recommend only to those who travel to Nicobar. The fruit is hard to come by, and the wrong cooking technique can mean several days with an upset tummy. The Nicobarese and Shompen tribes of the island, however, cook it to sweet perfection; a yellow-orange dish known as taluva among the Nicobarese tribe. The leaves on the other hand are used to weave mats and thatch roofs by tribes here, unlike in the mainland, or in other parts of the world where they’re used in cooking.

Further north, in the Ganjam district, however, two pandan species — Pandanus odoratissimus and Pandanus amaryllifolius — rule the fragrance industry. The male flowers in Pandanus amaryllifolius are used to distil what most of us know as kewra. What we usually get at the grocer’s is a much watered down distillate from the flowers. The primary produce tends to be essential oils for the fragrance industry that can cost as much as 4 lakh per kg. But that little bottle of kewra essence that you can get for as little as 50 makes magic with biryanis and phirni. While there are those who swear by rosewater in cooking, a sprinkle of kewra water into parboiled rice with lemon juice is what gives the best north Indian biryanis their will-not-share-my-food aroma. The same goes for phirni. Two drops ofi it s all you need to add that extra layer of flavour to your dish.

Pandanus odoratissimus, unlike its sister Pandanus amaryllifolius, is known for its flavourful leaves. The smell is not intensely fruity like the flowers but milder and, despite several such claims, nothing like vanilla. Some writers have called it the vanilla of the East as if it the East needs a vanilla benchmark to aspire to! What is gorgeous about pandan — both leaves and flowers — is that they add a layer of flavour to sweet and savoury alike. And I apologise if I am mistaken, but who has heard of a savoury staple being spiced with vanilla? Aromas are difficult to describe and so one will not proffer an uneducated guess to explain what the pandan smells like. Suffice it to say you could add two leaves to everyday rice, and it will come up smelling like a feast. Or you could add it to a pudding for delicate flavour.

In Odisha, where pandan leaves are sometimes used in cooking, this is primarily how the leaf is used. But as you move towards Southeast Asia, the leaf becomes a virtual staple. Singapore, for instance, makes this delicate green pandan chiffon cake which transforms your basic yellow cake into a party centrepiece, with the addition of these leaves as well as coconut milk. And while the Singaporeans wouldn’t give it a second thought, you would have plenty to write home about, especially if your mother thinks you are a kitchen dud. In Indonesia and Vietnam, tapioca flour replaces regular flour to give you denser honeycombed cakes in jelly green colours. Google recipes for bika ambon and banh bo nuong if you plan to attempt this. Although my trusted food blog (Food52) alerts me that these can be slightly complicated.

In savoury dishes, pandan is usually bruised in order to release its flavours without colouring the entire dish green. In Thailand, fish preparations in pandan leaves are very popular much like the banana leaf in east India. There are recipes which call for wrapping the fish in the spiky pandan leaves and deep frying it, and others that steam the fish stuffed with pandan and lemongrass leaves. Think about that flavour in your mouth. It might even be a good time to plan a trip to Thailand.

In Sri Lanka, the pandan can be found in most curries, often with curry leaves, sometimes without. If you are lucky enough to have a coconut-based south Indian curry and some pandan leaves, stick half a bruised leaf in. Should you feel more diligent, look up the recipe for a Sri Lankan beef curry. If beef is banned where you live (which is a pity), you could look up fish curries. If you happen to be vegetarian, they have some delicious dal recipes with coconut milk and pandan. And if, like me, your relationship with north Indian dals is strained, you may find new love.

But before you pull out all stops in your hunt for pandan leaves, make sure you have tried the trusty old kewra. Because: swadeshi and nationalism, but mostly because you are certain to find it. Unlike pandan, which has yet to become the avocado or the matcha of anything. But you can thank us for letting you know that it’s the hot new thing. And if you like to be cool and cooking with things no one else has heard of, this is what you should try for the next party. I am told pandan smoothies are in, just in case you needed a showstopper.

Farah Yameen is an oral historian

Published on January 01, 2018

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