The pandan plant grows throughout Indochina and is used in a variety of Thai dishes.

If your experience with Thai food is going out to a Thai restaurant in the United States every month or two, then you may not be familiar with Thai recipes that are flavored with pandan. Seldom do restaurants outside of Thailand offer pandan dishes. But in Thailand, pandan is used with a great variety of foods.

Pandan is a plant with narrow, sword-like leaves. These leaves are used for Thai cuisine in a variety of ways. It has a very subtle flavor that’s almost impossible to describe as nothing else quite tastes like pandan. I describe the taste as somewhat nutty, but only somewhat. In other words, pandan tastes like pandan!

Pandan Stuffed Salt Fish
Photo Above: Pandan Stuffed Salt Fish in Kalasin, Thailand.
The most common pandan dish you’ll find in Thailand is pandan chicken. The chicken is wrapped in pandan leaves and deep-fried. The very subtle flavor is infused into the meat.

The pandan leaf can be used to wrap food and the flavor is then infused. Or pandan leaves can be ground into a fine powder and added to a recipe. There are pandan cakes, custards, cookies, chicken…the list is endless.

It’s common to put a couple pandan leaves in a jar of water for a day and drink pandan infused water-great for the digestion. Taxi drivers often use pandan leaves in the back of their taxis as an air freshener. In Thai homes, you may find a vase of pandan leaves on the kitchen table to clear the air. Pandan powder is sometimes sprinkled on top a fruit smoothie or a cup of cappuccino.

In the video above, you can watch an accomplished Thai chef cook with pandan leaves.

I was walking through a tropical garden the other day in Malaysia when I abruptly stopped and turned to my wife to exclaim that I smelled pandan. Sure enough, as my wife pointed out about 5 yards away, was a clump of this wonderful plant.

Pandan cuisine takes a very good chef to master this very subtle flavor.

So if you see a pandan dish on the menu, order it. If you see baked goods with pandan, buy it. If you see a smoothie offered with pandan sprinkled on top, get it. At first, you may not even taste this very subtle flavor. But over time you’ll be like me and notice it almost immediately.

When I’m in the United States, nothing makes me think of Thailand more than the scent of pandan leaves. Bon appetite.

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