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History of Pandan Leaf. Amazing, Mighty, Unsung Food Hero

The pandan leaf (known in the West as screw pine) is so pervasive in Southeast Asian cuisine that it is like an unsung hero - always there, dependable but seldom in the limelight, somewhat taken for granted. Nicknamed the "vanilla of the East", pandan costs only a mere fraction but delivers just as much fragrance.

The cheery green colour pandan leaf is widely used in food in Southeast Asia and South Asia as flavouring, fragrance, colouring, and wrapping.


The "worms" or "noodles" in chendol is make with mung bean flour and strained pureed pandan leaf, hence its alluring green colour. The chendol "noodles" are soft and taste gently sweet with additional sweet taste and smell from pandan leaf.


In Thai pandan chicken, spice marinated chicken is wrapped in fresh pandan leaf and deep fried in hot oil. The spice infused tender chicken is given an additional layer of sweet flavour and aroma from the pandan leaf.


Every hawker has his / her own recipe for chicken rice. Many of the most popular ones use just pandan leaf (tied in bundles), garlic and shallot to cook their rice in chicken stock and oil.


Giant pandan leaf make the best wrapping for rice dumplings (zongzi) as they impart the most sweet flavour and fragrance to the rice.

Kueh Salat is a Nyonya sweet dessert. There are two layers. The white layer is made with rice flour and coconut milk. The green layer is made with rice flour and strained pandan leaf puree. The sweet fragrant kueh is cooked layer by layer.

Growing up in Singapore, I have fond memories of pandan chiffon cake. I like its thick spongy green "meat" with a brown coat. Even before eating, I can smell the pandan fragrance from the warm cake. It feels airy, pillowy, spongy with the brown skin subtly soft chewy. Every bite releases a blend of pandan fragrance and eggy sweetness. It's one of my childhood favourites.


Pandan leaf is a key ingredient together with eggs and coconut milk in making kaya (coconut jam) the traditional way.

Pandan leaf is used in many more recipes in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia but you get the idea.

Pandan is native to the Malay peninsular and archipelago, and was later introduced to south Asia (mainly Sri Lanka and India).

There are little records, so it is uncertain when pandan leaf start to be used in our food. The pandan tree was mentioned in the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals. The wife of Sang Nila Utama, founder of the kingdom of Singapura, was enjoying a day at the beach under the shade of a wild pandan tree on Batam Island in 1298.

"The princess sat under an aloe (Pandan) tree, and all the females of rank around her, delighted with viewing the amusements of her attendants; one of whom brought an oyster, another a cupang (species of oyster),  another a 
bari (species of oyster), another pulled a wild plantain (banana), another the butan leaf to prepare a salad; another collected agar-agar (dulse seaweed), for making a relish."

It was not mentioned if pandan leaf was used as food then but it would be reasonable to infer so, and its use probably pre-dated this recorded event (in 1298). At around the same time, use of pandan in cooking is mentioned in Thai Ayutthaya Kingdom records.


Today, pandan is widely cultivated in Southeast Asia and does not exist in the wild anymore. The screw pine is a hardy plant that grows quickly and easily with good sunshine, so it is abundant and affordable. A rich, sweet blessing from Mother Nature.

Written by Tony Boey on 15 Jul 2021


Image of pandan cake courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of kaya pandan cake courtesy of flickr. Image of wild pandan courtesy of Wikipedia.

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