Jun 18, 2011

The Asian vanilla

I brought pandan sponge cake to playgroup for morning tea one day, and I had flavoured  it with pandan juice and coconut milk. Someone asked me what it was made of, and I said, "It is flavoured with pandan."

"Pandan?" she said, with a blank look.

"Err, pandanus?" I offer, as pandan in English is well, pandan, and pandanus is the scientific name. But I was still met with a blank look.

Then, someone (who I later found out had worked with an Asian importer) said, "Pandan is the Asian vanilla."

And that was met with 'ahhhhs'.

Isn't that novel? It never occured to me but pandan is just like vanilla, an aromatic flavouring which imparts a subtle taste and is invaluable with added to desserts. Its sweet scent can also, like vanilla, go into household detergents and air fresheners. When I had a pandan plant in Malaysia, I would put a few leaves in my car - when baked in the hot Malaysian sun, the leaves would dry up and release a sweet and all natural fragrance that would last for days. No need to inhale the formaldehyde that is in commercial air fresheners!

Unfortunately, pandan is too pricey a commodity to do that here. When I first arrived, I made nasi lemak for some guests and bought fresh pandan leaves at a grocer. I paid a whopping $1 for one leaf (yes, you read that right, one). I've seen a pandan plant on sale at eBay for $30 - pandan in good tropical weather spreads voraciously but I don't know how well they do in winter, so I wasn't willing to splurge for one. I've since found frozen pandan leaves at the Asian grocer(imported from Thailand or Vietnam), which is just $2 for a whole bunch of about 20 leaves, and it was with this that I made the juice for the sponge cake.

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