THE POPULARITY OF THIS NUTRIENT-RICH AND HEALING TROPICAL PLANT IS ON THE RISE, SAYS SARAH MARINOS.
Pandan may offer some hope for people living with diabetes.
It’s sometimes called the ‘vanilla of the East’ due to its distinct sweet flavour and it’s been a mainstay in kitchens from India, Malaysia and Vietnam to Sri Lanka and Thailand for centuries. More recently the popularity of pandan has soared since domestic goddess Nigella Lawson raved about this pungent green leaf. Nigella described it as “the new matcha”, referring to the once little heard-of green tea that can now be found in cakes, teas, smoothies and icecreams across the world.
Get the green light
It seems that pandan is set to follow in matcha’s footsteps. There are around 750 species of the pandanus or pandan plant – also known as the screwpine. The plants are similar in appearance to palm trees with fanshaped bunches of long, narrow bladeshaped leaves.
The plants are most commonly found in tropical and subtropical countries, such as India, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand but some species of pandan are found closer to home in the Northern Territory. They have been an important source of food and medicine for indigenous Australians for generations.
Pandan is being researched and recognised worldwide for its potential medicinal and healing properties. The pandan plant and its leaves contain phytochemicals – natural biologically active compounds that seem to have some wide-ranging health benefits.
In India, the leaves are left to soak in coconut oil and that oil is then rubbed on the body to relieve the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Indian natural health practitioners also report chewing pandan leaves as an alternative to a trip to the dentist and to help maintain good oral health. Adding fresh pandan leaves to a cool bath is also used as a treatment for sunburn.
Researchers at Malaysian universities have also praised pandan for its potential disease-fighting antioxidants. It contains polyphenols that have been associated with slowing the development of serious diseases, such as heart disease.
Researchers found freeze-dried powdered pandan leaf had higher levels of antioxidants than fresh pandan leaves. Pandan may also offer some hope for the 400-million plus people worldwide living with diabetes. Researchers at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok say pandan leaves are used in traditional medicine to help manage diabetes. In one study, participants drank pandan tea while another group of people drank hot water after a glucose tolerance test. The blood sugar levels of the two group were compared and those who drank pandan tea saw a smaller spike in their blood sugar levels. Researchers believe this is due to a natural compound in pandan called quercetin. They add, “The knowledge gained from this research can be used as a basis for a new drug discovery for the treatment of diabetes.”
Pandan is also causing a stir with chefs and foodies globally. Some of the trendiest bars in New York, Paris and London are serving pandan-flavoured cocktails, such as the Electric Crusta containing calvados with pandan syrup, bergamot curaçao, blood orange juice and bitters. Or the Asian Persuasion that blends Suze aperitif with black lemon, pandan syrup, passionfruit and
A multitude of uses
The characteristic aroma of pandan leaves is due to a compound in the leaves called 2-Acetyl-1pyrroline. On the plant, the leaves don’t have an aroma, but once picked and lightly crushed, they release the sought-after vanilla scent that is used in foods and in perfumes.
In Southeast Asian-style cooking, pandan leaf is often added to curries, rice, jams and desserts. In India, pandan leaves are added to rice to create the flavour of basmati rice.
Basmati is more expensive so adding pandan to standard rice gives flavour on a budget. Many Asian countries flavour light sponge cakes with pandan leaf – vibrant green pandan cake is a familiar item on many restaurant and café menus.
In Australia, fresh, dried or frozen pandan can be bought in Asian grocery stores although frozen leaves can lose some of their flavour so you’ll need to use more when cooking.
On a more practical level, if you do get your hands on some fresh pandan leaves, they’re a natural air freshener. Knot the leaves together, slip them in to your wardrobe or hang them in a room and enjoy the sweet smell…
Pandan is being recognised worldwide for its potential medicinal and healing properties.