Uses of pandan leaves

Written by g.d. palmer
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Uses of pandan leaves
Pandan leaves are an important ingredient in many southeast Asian foods. (Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

Pandan leaves come from the Pandanus amaryllifolius plant, a tropical member of the screwpine genus native to southeast Asia. This shrubby perennial plant has fan-shaped clusters of long, narrow leaves that produce a strong smell when wilted. Fresh pandan leaves have little odour. This plant has historically been used in cooking and to make household items such as baskets. Pandan leaves also contain compounds that repel some species of cockroaches and are a traditional insect repellent.

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Leaves from the pandan plant have a sweet, musky odour and flavour when cut, bruised or wilted. When used in cooking, they produce a sweet, slightly floral flavour similar to American bubblegum, and a bright green colour. Cooks tie pandan leaves in a knot and place them in soups to cook, or bruise or chop them for use in seasoned rice, pudding, drinks and other foods. They often use pandan along with coconut milk, lemon grass, glutinous or sticky rice and sugar. Pandan extracts and frozen leaves are available in ethnic speciality food stores outside the plant's native range. Pandan extract often contains extra green food colouring, according to the "Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings."

Other Cooking Uses

Some cultures use pandan leaves to scent and wrap some foods. For instance, in India, people toss the leaves into open wells to scent the water. Southeast Asian cooks wrap pandan leaves around pork, chicken, fish and balls of glutinous rice to protect and scent them while grilling, steaming or roasting the food. Some desserts also receive this treatment. According to "What Herb is That?," some cooks weave strips of pandan leaves into decorative serving baskets for rice and savoury dishes.

Household Objects

When dried, pandan leaves are tough and flexible. Historically, these leaves served as house thatching. They have also been woven into sails, baskets, floor mats and clothing. According to "What Herb is That?," women in the Pacific Islands wove split pandan leaves into "grass" skirts.

Insect Repellent

Taxi drivers in Malaysia and Singapore hang bunches of pandan leaves in their taxis to discourage cockroach infestations. People also use these bunches around the home. Pandan leaves contain several repellent chemicals, including 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (2AP). Extracts of these leaves have been shown to be less effective than compounds taken from some other plants, including lemon grass and clove, but they do repel American and German cockroach species.

Medicine and Cosmetics

Pandan leaves produce a diuretic effect when consumed in large quantities. They are also used in treating some skin conditions. Traditional medicine practitioners use the roots of this plant as an anti-diabetic treatment. Pandan leaves' strong, sweet smell makes them a desirable ingredient in perfumes and other scented cosmetics.

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