Meet pandanus amaryllifolius, a well-known face in the South East Asian food circuit. Usually appearing at foodie taste parties alongside coconut milk, pandan's role is to give dishes a heady scent and flavours a long finish. It's very distinct as a flavour, though, so it escapes comparisons to other foods. I can't say it's anything like basil or coriander or curry leaf or lemongrass. However, if you try to imagine an open field or a forest in South East Asia with lush vegetation, you might be able to guess at the taste of pandan. In fact, the closest I can get to describing pandan's scent is this: it's what the tropical rainforest in Singapore smells like after a heavy rain shower.
Pandan has some pretty diverse uses, and dishes featuring this leaf include kaya (a Singaporean/Malaysian coconut custard concoction that's spread on toast), pandan chicken from Thailand (succulent pieces of chicken wrapped in woven pandan leaves), Hainanese chicken rice (the pandan is added to the cooking liquid for the rice), and various Nyonya kueh (cakes and sweets that are specialties of the Straits Chinese).
I made a batch of kaya today - this is the reason I have pandan to photograph - from a recipe at Beyond the Plate. Here is a link to Danielle's recipe for kaya toast. And here are some of my photos of the process.
The custardy mix being double-boiled
The finished product
I should say, I chickened out of using fresh coconut milk and just used a nice canned version. For about two minutes, I did think about buying a whole coconut at the supermarket to extract the milk, but then I realised that: (a) I don't have a meat cleaver to cut it open with; and (b) I have no idea where to get one of those swan-shaped wooden-metal compound thingies used on the Subcontinent to grate the flesh of the coconut from inside the half-shells.
I was very happy with the kaya, but I needed just two leaves for the recipe. So, I now have a bunch of at least 20 or 30 leaves left in the fridge! If anyone fancies picking it up from me in Central London (for free), give me a shout. Otherwise, I'll be weaving pandan chicken packets for the rest of the week.
Thanks, Danielle at Beyond the Plate, for the recipe. Frangelico's verdict on the kaya toast: crazily delicious!