Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pandan ( Pandanus amaryllifolius)


We have many kinds of big Pandanus trees in the Pacific Islands, so when I say I am using a Pandanus leaf as a herb or spice people immediately think of the 4 ft long leaves of the trees that are used to weave mats and baskets.......and they look at me funny.  I have to explain that Pandan is a mini sized Pandanus that would fit into their herb garden just fine.  A student from Malaysia introduced this plant to me and I have been growing it and using it for over ten years now.  It makes my common, California grown, rice give off  the lovely Jasmine rice smell when cooking and adds a nice subtle flavor to the rice as well.  Here in Hawaii, gourmet rices are becoming big time, with the rice shelves at the supermarket expanding greatly with all the fancy international choices.  Pandan makes my cheap rice taste like a gourmet rice.  It may be my imagination, but I think that the cooked rice does not go off so quick either if it has been cooked with Pandan.

The Pandan is a stalk like plant with long slender leaves of about 1- 1 1/2 ft. long.  After a while, the mature plant gives off little offshoots so that it becomes more of clump.  Mine has not grown higher than 3 ft.  As it matures, the plant bends down with the weight and sends out aerial roots to support it.  If you do not keep an eye on it, it could go expanding out in your garden so you do need to expect it to spread out somewhat.  However, if the clump is just taking up too much room, just break off some of the off shoots to give away as gifts or to root and pot up.  After about five years, I pulled up most of my Pandan and started again with  new rooted tops as the old clump was starting to look too messy and tangled.  I do love the fragrance of the Pandan in the garden on a humid or rainy day. 



The Pandan does not flower......an indication that this plant has relied on man to reproduce it for thousands of  years.  Pandan will grow in sun or semi-shade.  It does like moist soil.  I have seen it grown in swampy areas in SE Asia, but is grows in my sandy soil OK although I do water it every few days.  I notice my plants leaf tips get burnt when the salt wind gets going but otherwise it does fine.  It has no disease problems except that I notice that slugs will eat the tender leaves of the baby off shoots when I pot them up if I leave the pots sitting on the ground.

To propagate new Pandan plants I pull off an off shoot/sucker from the mother plant and leave it standing in water for a few weeks until it starts rooting before I pot it up.  I change the water daily to keep it fresh and oxygenated.  I found this worked better than just potting up the off shoot straight away where it tended to rot and die.

Pandan is commonly grown throughout SE Asia as a herb/spice.  As I said, I add my Pandan leaves to ordinary rice to give it a subtle Jasmine rice flavor.  I suspect I may be getting added benefits of some plant goodness into my rice as well.  Some in SE Asia consider the plant to have medicinal qualities.
If you are familiar with Nasi Lemak from Malaysia, this is just rice cooked with coconut milk and a few leaves of Pandan.  The usual method is just to cut three leaves of Pandan, tie them together into a knot and throw them in the pot with the rice.  This makes for easy removal at the end of cooking.  Do not use the white part of the leaf at the base.  Leaves do keep quite well in the refrigerator.  Wrap them up in a damp cloth or paper towel and store them in a plastic bag.

Pandan leaves for sale in a Thai market. 


You can buy bottles of Pandan essence in Asian stores.  They are usually bright green in color so I eye them suspiciously.  I think green food color has been added.  I ate Pandan bread  and Pandan mochi in Malaysia that was green in color.  To tell the truth, there was more green food coloring there too than any Pandan taste that I could detect.  In Thailand I bought small pieces of chicken wrapped in Pandan leaves and fried.  It was nice chicken but I could not taste any Pandan flavor.  More a unique way of presenting food.

On looking around the Internet I find recipes for making your own Pandan juice.  Just blend 6-8 leaves with 2/3 cup of water in a food processor and discard the solids to keep the liquid for cooking.  Or you can make a Pandan paste.  Boil 1" pieces of leaves in 1/2 a cup of water and then throw it all into a food processor and use the resulting paste to add to your cakes and desserts. This sounds better than buying those bright green bottles of Pandan essence at the store.   I think I will just be sticking to throwing a few leaves into my rice pot which has become a long time habit now.  Some Nasi Lemak goes over well too....

Aloha