This tropical plant gives foods a nutty flavor and surprising color

  • Holley Simmons
  • The Washington Post
6:00 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018 Cooking and Recipes
Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post
Chef Nongkran Daks' pandan custard at Thai Basil in Chantilly, Va. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Dixie D. Vereen (ONE-TIME USE WITH PANDAN STORY)

Nongkran Daks, chef and owner of Thai Basil in Chantilly, Virginia, recently served a customer who made her feel like a Dr. Seuss character. After ordering the restaurant's Thai custard, he scoffed at the green tint of his dessert.

"He said: 'Custard is supposed to be beige. I will not eat green custard,' " remembers Daks. "And I thought, is this 'Green Eggs [and Ham]'?"

Daks's sweet, fragrant dish gets its emerald color from pandan, a tropical plant found throughout Southeast Asia. It's long been a staple of Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese and Indonesian cuisine, though the ingredient is becoming more ubiquitous. In October, British cooking celebrity Nigella Lawson deemed pandan "the new matcha."

Sometimes called the vanilla of Southeast Asian cooking, pandan has leaves that lend a slightly sweet and nutty hint to any dish they grace - plus that unmistakable green hue. The plant is also so aromatic that some people use the dried leaves as an air freshener. "It's very light and fresh and delicate," says Daks, who makes her own pandan extract at Thai Basil by blending the plant with water and squeezing it through a cheesecloth. 

Snocream Company, a small Taiwanese shaved ice shop in Annandale, Virginia, likewise uses fresh pandan leaves in its sweets. Mei boils the leaves, mixes the strained liquid into his shaved ice base and freezes it. He then runs the frozen block across the blade of a slicing machine for ribbons of bright green ice that melt in your mouth like snow. "People think it's mint because of the color," Mei says. "But the flavor is closer to a coconut. It's subtle."

Because pandan has a hint of sweetness, it's most often used in desserts. However, the plant is a common ingredient in many savory Malaysian curries and some Vietnamese chicken dishes. At Mondayoff, a Vietnamese restaurant in Brooklyn, co-owner Benjaporn Chua uses pandan in the marinade for gai yang bai toey, a traditional grilled chicken dish. Following her mother's recipe, Chua cooks buttermilk, cilantro, Thai chile peppers, garlic, galangal and fresh pandan leaves. After it cools, she uses it to marinate chicken thighs for hours before grilling them. "It gives the chicken a little sweetness, and you get a lot of fragrance," Chua says of the dish, which is among the new restaurant's most popular.

Pandan is available in pre-bought extract form, which is usually more concentrated than the homemade version, with an almost neon-green color.

Chef Russell Smith at the Source in Washington, D.C., uses pandan extract in ice cream, and pastry chef Mollie Bird uses it to flavor the cream filling in doughnut holes at Kyirisan. "I've played around with boiling the leaves, but you can't get the same intense color," Bird says. "It's really hard to get that just from the leaves."

Still, many prefer the real thing. Daks from Thai Basil is particularly skeptical of pandan extract. "I don't trust it," she says. "I don't know how long it's been on the shelf, and I don't know how clean it is when they made it." In other words, she will not eat it, Sam I Am.