Re-viewing Pandan Leaf

What Vanilla is to the West, Pandan leaf is to Asia. A wild growing variety, this pine-like leaves make not for an interesting wrap to cook in but an essence that can enliven your daily meals including the humble rice, says Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Sriracha)

By Madhulika Dash; Photo courtesy: Sriracha

“When you steam the pandan leaves they become more pliable to work with,” says Chef Vikas Seth as he expertly gifts wrap the tofu squares into a parcel ready to be pan-charred. Chef Seth, who has recently launched a DIY kit for their signature dish, the pandan leaf-wrapped tofu/chicken is amidst a masterclass that involves not only creating one of the popular tea house grub of the Silk Route but also offers an insight view about using one of the wildly grown but often confusing aromatic leaf called Pandan. A staple in Thai cuisine this almost pine leaf cousin still is revered for its fragrance is an integral part of Thai cuisine along with its brethren the Thai coriander. Inedible when compared to the coriander leaf that is readily used in garnishing and flavouring meat dishes, pandan leaf usage in food across Thailand and regions around it is akin to the sal patta here. It is an outstanding flavourant, adds Chef Seth, who first fell in love with this grassy smelling leaf on his trip to Thailand where these little street shops and shacks would offer them as part of their appetiser that is served alongside tea or any kind of hot or cold beverage. And it is while sampling some of the many pandan-leaf wrapped treats that the pan Asian specialist was finally introduced to the wonders of leaf that was as versatile in its usage as it was with its subtle notes that ranged from the sweet aroma of a rose to refreshing pine to even a hint of kewra. In fact, he adds, “to a more conscientious nose the leaf base notes can also remind one of vanilla and its balminess. One of the many reasons that the leaf gained so much of popularity in Vietnam to Malaysia and even Sri Lanka.”

Thanks to the ease with which the pandan leaf – a species of the tropical climate – pollinated Asia that it was easy to find one odd dish across the different food cultures across the Silk Route. And this fascinatingly also included India, where Pandan leaf also called annaporna was used to create one of the indigenous essences called Kewra that is widely used in savoury as well as sweet dishes.

But what is about the pandan leaf that makes it so versatile? Unlike the grassy smell that is one of the predominant flavours of the leaf, pandan is one of the few leaves adopted by the culinary world that, says Chef Seth, “happily yields to various techniques and not only lends itself to a dish in terms of aroma but as colour as well. Thanks to its fibrous texture it also takes on the role of a natural vessel that can be boiled, steamed, grilled and pan-charred too. Thus, making pandan leaf one of the secret ingredients that can impressively crank up the aroma and flavour quotient of any dish – be it rice, stew, pudding, panna cotta, meat, ice creams and even meat delicacies, especially with lamb, duck, and beef. It is a perfect alternative to add more character to any steamed fish dish, and pairs well with another fragrant leaf like kefir lime leaves or even mangoes.”

However, one of the finest culinary roles of pandan leaf aside its traditional used to give steam rice its distinct aroma or baos and dumpling wraps their lively green hue and fragrance is its use as a wrap to char or pan-sear delicate ingredients like tofu (paneer too), prawns and chicken. An excellent case in point is Sriracha’s Pandan leaf-wrapped Cottage Cheese. The dish uses small cubes of marinated paneer wrapped in steamed pandan leaf that are pan-charred (much like pot stickers) and then basted with the umami-rich, soy-based marination to give it that distinct caramel sweetness, appearance, and deliciousness.  The beauty of this à la minute dish that is served with made-to-the Indian palate dips of Sesame sweet chilli sauce & Coriander chilli soya sauce is that while it is high on taste, the use of all the sauces, says Chef Seth, and this includes the marinate as well as the basting cooking sauce is only to compliment the natural flavour of the ingredient and the aroma lend by pandan leaf, which makes the dish suitable for everyone. Of course, the bonus is the versatility of the recipe that can be adopted to different kind of meats, fish and even a few produces. The only thing to be kept in mind is the freshness. The fresher the ingredient the better it yields to the charms of pandan leaf.

Impressively, Sriracha’s signature dish bears a fond semblance to one of the treats that was a portal station favourite. Story has it that port stations – cities or coastal regions that fell at the intersection of the trading route -used pandan leaf wrapped sticky rice pudding and meat grills to serve to the travellers that frequented this route. Such was the popularity of these treats that soon they travelled the length and breadth of the region with pandan leaf finding newer roles to play in the food world. One such brilliant use was the pandan leaf flavoured crepe, which was the Asian version of the tacos and often the street treat that introduced traders and traveling sailors to newer treats. It is said that this was how the British first took a liking to the grand old dad of the ketchup – a delicious fish sauce named koe-cheup. However, the allure of the pandan leaf wasn’t limited to the foraging commoners and farmers, royalty too fell the aromatic charms of the pine-like leaf that was soon an integral part not just of cooking but also presentation. After all, who wouldn’t be smitten by a intricately woven parcel being undone to reveal a fragrant, flavoursome, scrumptious treat – much like the pandan-leaf wrapped cottage cheese that is served in Sriracha.

What aces these theatrics is the taste, says Chef Seth, who finds it one of the hard to resist treats of Asian culinary legacy.