What Are Pandan or Screwpine Leaves?
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Posted on 09 Mar 2015 18:59

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Pandan, or screwpine, also called pandanus, daun pandan, and screw palm, is a shrub with strap shaped leaves reminiscent of palm leaves. Some species of this plant have highly aromatic leaves that are prized in cooking. The flowers are also aromatic, and an extract called kewra (or keora) is made from them and used in Indian milk-based sweets. They are widely distributed throughout Southeast Asia and other tropical regions.

Pandan Leaves Uses in Cooking

The leaves are used extensively for cooking throughout India and Southeast Asia. They are used particularly in Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian cuisine and New Guinea cuisine. Their floral flavor are used to flavor rices dishes, soups, curries, puddings, desserts, and beverages. They feature often in desserts that contain coconut milk. They are also used to wrap meats and fish. Their intense green color acts as natural food coloring, giving a green color to the dishes in which they are used.


Thai-style pandan cake

A Thai Cake with Pandan, or "Bai-toey Khanum Chan"
Khanum means dessert and chan means layers, so
this translates to "Layered dessert with pandan."

Thai-style pandan cake

A Thai Cake with Pandan, or "Bai-toey Khanum Chan"
Khanum means dessert and chan means layers, so
this translates to "Layered dessert with pandan."




When used for wrapping, chicken, meat, fish, or even desserts are wrapped in the leaves and then barbecued or steamed. Their sweet, floral scent is hay-like sweet and musky, reminiscent of almond and vanilla. In fact, they are often called the "vanilla of Southeast Asia." The Malaysians, Thais, and Indonesians add bruised leaves by raking them with a fork, then tie them in knots and add them to rice dishes, puddings, and desserts, so that the flavor is extracted.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, they are used in rice dishes such as Nasi lemak, nasi kuning, and nasi padang. In Thailand, they are used to make a sweet coconut-cream dessert topping called gati lart naa khonom; and in khanom chan bai-toey (layered cake with screwpine). In a very famous Thai dish, gai hor bai-toey, they are used as a wrapping for what is essentially Thai fried chicken wrapped in screwpine leaves. This is similar to how the Chinese use lotus leaves.

The leaves go well with coconut milk, milk, glutinous (sticky) rice, and tumeric. Indonesians steam rice in small baskets made from the leaves.

The aforementioned kewra extract is used in Indian desserts like rasgulla (cottage cheese in syrup), gulab jamun (Fried cottage cheese in syrup); and rasmalai (cottage cheese with condensed milk). It is also used in biryanis (North India), and in cakes and drinks.


Thai-style pandan cake

Thai fried chicken wrapped in screwpine leaves, or gai hor bai-toey

Thai-style pandan cake

Thai fried chicken wrapped in screwpine leaves, or gai hor bai-toey



Spice Blends with Pandan

Spice blends which use screwpine leaves are:

  • nasi lemak
  • nasi kuning
  • biryani
  • kueh lapis
  • rendang
  • rasmalai
  • gulab jamun

Species of Screwpine Used for Cooking

Although there are at least 600 to 750 species in the genus Pandanus, of the family family Pananaceae or screwpine family, that are aromatic and useful for cooking, but their flavor and appearance differ depending on where they originated:

  • Southeast Asia — Pandanus amaryllifolius
  • North India — Pandanus odoratissimus
  • Sri Lanka — Pandanus latifolius

Rather than an essential oil, it is thought by some that the scent comes from the oxidation and subsequent breakdown of a yellow pigment in the leaves, since the leaves become aromatic within a day or two after they wilt. However, they contain a volatile compound called 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline which is also present in Jasmine and Basmati rice, as well as popcorn and crabmeat, lending much of their aroma. The leaves also contain styrene, linalol, ß-cayophyllene; and alkaloids pandamarine and pandamirilactones, which are similar to piperidine. Once cooked, the flavor is said to be somewhat like roasted breadfruit, and is much prized in all the regions the plants are used.

pandan or screwpine leaves growing

Pandan or Screwpine growing, species Pandanus amaryllifolius
Image by dekoelie via wikimedia

pandan or screwpine leaves growing

Pandan or Screwpine growing, species Pandanus amaryllifolius
Image by dekoelie via wikimedia




The species that are useful for cooking do not grow as large as other varieties, which can reach heights of 25 to 30 feet. Most varieties that are used for cooking as well, are sterile, and do no produce fruit. They are reproduced from cuttings.

The leaves are long, thin, and narrow with a deep green color, and are sold fresh, frozen, or dried. They are exported to the United States and can be found in Asian markets. A relative, Pandanu utilis is seen often in Florida as a landscape plant, but this species is only useful for ornament, and cannot be used for cooking. There are no species that are native to North America.

Screwpine Leaves (Pandan) Substitute

If you cannot find screwpine leaves, especially fresh or frozen in an Asian market, pandan essence or paste can sometimes be found instead as a replacement. Unfortunately, many of these use artificial pandan flavor, so check the ingredients. The flavor is similar, but much of the subtlety is lost. In a pinch, vanilla can be used to replace screwpine leaves, although the flavor is of course not the same. Singing Bird brand Pandan Leaves Extract lists "pandan leaf extract" as the ingredient (with water and yellow coloring), while most brands list "pandan flavor" or just "artificial flavor."

Therapeutic and Other Uses

In India, screwpine leaves are sacred to Shiva, and are sometimes tossed into wells to scent the water. The plant is a diuretic and has been used to treat skin diseases.

In Thailand and Southeast Asia, the scented oil is used as a cockroach repellent, and powdered leaves are used to combat a weevil which infests mung beans, Callosobruchus chinensis. The leaves of the various non-edible varieties are used for basket weaving and other crafts.

Other Names for Screwpine

Screwpine was the name given to the plant by English explorers, various other names are:

  • Arabic: kathey
  • Bangali: ketaky
  • Cantonese: chan heung lahn
  • Mandarin: chan xiang lan
  • Danish: skrupalm (screwpalm)
  • Dutch: pandan
  • French: pandanus
  • German: schraubenpalme
  • Hebrew: pandanus
  • Hindi: rampe
  • Hungarian: pandanuz
  • Indonesian: daun pandan
  • Italian: pandano
  • Japanese: takonoki
  • Khmer: taey
  • Laotian: tay ban
  • Malaylam: kaitha
  • Malaysian: daun pandan
  • Norwegian: scrupalme
  • Portugese: pandano
  • Singhalese: rampe
  • Spanish: pandano
  • Swedish: skruvpalm
  • Tamil: thazhai
  • Thai: bai toey hom
  • Vietnamese: cay com nep
References
1. Raghavan, Susheela. Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings. Boca Raton, FL: CRC/Taylor & Francis, 2007.
2. Tan, Hugh T. W. Herbs & Spices of Thailand. Singapore: Times Editions - Marshall Cavendish, 2005.
3. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2004.
© 2016 by Eric Troy and CulinaryLore. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.