Pandan: A magic ingredient

My uncle came over the other day with a carrier bag full of pandan leaves for my mother. He picked these leaves from his garden where his one plant has truly grown in abundance.

I remember being a kid and spending Sundays in my uncle’s coffee shop, where he would make kaya for the week. Kaya literally translates from Malay to mean rich. Like a jam, it is a spread made from coconut milk, eggs, sugar and pandan leaf juice. My sister and I would fight to hold the giant wooden spoon to stir the mixture while my uncle cracked the eggs in.

Pandan leaves emit a superfragrant smell. For this reason it is used to perfume many of my favourite dishes. Added into cooking, the kitchen is rich with the aroma. Used with coconut it enhances the taste and smell of coconut and turns food a light green colour.

Knotted and added to cooking rice with coconut milk, you get nasi lemak, Malaysia’s favourite breakfast. Juiced and marinated with chicken, then used to wrap the chicken, you get Pandan Chicken, a Thai/Malaysian dish.

Pandan as a magic ingredient does not stop at savoury food. In Asia, it is also used in making cakes. I spent this trip in Kuala Lumpur looking to buy some Pandan Layer Cake, a chilled cake, sometimes topped with dessicated coconut. Last week, I found 2 different types of layer cake. The Indonesian variety, a dense cake made of many layers and the one I love, which is chilled and is made up of layers of sponge and pandan flavoured jelly. Another favourite is kuih bangkit, a cookie that is flavoured with pandan and a staple treat during Chinese New Year. I found some being sold in Chinatown the other day and snacked on the fish-shaped cookies, pretending that it was still Chinese New Year.


Pandan leaves are available to buy from the Chinese supermarkets in the UK. I remember seeing it for sale in Pat’s Chung Ying on Leith Walk in Edinburgh. Although available to buy from the Chinese supermarkets, once I head back to London, I am going to miss seeing the many foods made with pandan on menus and in bakeries. Before I leave, I will be clutching on to some leaves and soaking in the wonderful fragrance.

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Working Hard and Playing With Your Food

Part of the joy in eating for me is the journey and the process.

I love that you see the food and know that eventually you’ll taste its deliciousness. You just need to work for it. Just a little. But it is all worthwhile. It really is. My sister took me for a Thai meal the other day and we had the best combination of flavours ever in the form of the starter Miang Kam. Betel leaves are sprinkled with diced ginger, toasted coconut, dried shrimp, diced lime and shallots, peanuts and birdseye chillies. Wrapped up, and eaten, it is the most wonderful blending of flavours.

In a different category, we have food that make you work hard. Shellfish, especially crab, if eaten in Asian countries is prepared in its shell. Tables are set with little hammers and pliers for diners, alongside chopsticks or forks and spoons. When there is a crab dish, conversation usually goes dead because of the level of concentration in getting that little sliver of flesh. I am a dedicated crab-eater. I love having a strategy, and to have to think of how best to unshell the crab. All that work for a little bit of food. Sunflower seeds, groundnuts (or monkey nuts as they are known in the UK) all fall under this category. It’s all about showing how much effort you’re willing to put in. I believe the tastiness comes from the anticipation of the food.

Spring rolls, fajitas, Vietnamese pancakes, crispy duck pancakes spring to mind as interactive food. What fun! Playing with your food is more than allowed, you have to. I just love having this blank canvas for you to add little bits of ingredients to. And wrapping it up and knowing that you created this and you’re going to eat it.

Food when unrushed is oh, so delicious. Fingers working, eyes watching it come together, nose smelling the fragrant ingredients, ears listening to Plat Du Jour perhaps and tongue, probably salivating.