I love the smell of pandan leaves and any dishes that are flavoured with pandan leaves. Pandan leaves not only make your dishes fragrant but also the whole house when you cook with it. My mother would pick some pandan leaves from our backyard, just before she starts cooking. She would clean the leaves thoroughly and then bruise it lightly; knot a few leaves together and add it to washed rice and coconut milk when she is cooking nasi lemak. The pandan leaves are tied into a knot so that it is easy to remove it later. Pandan leaves must be removed from the pot after the cooking is over as otherwise it will impart a bitter taste to the dish. The entire house will be enveloped by the sweet smell of pandan and coconut milk. Somehow these two ingredients pair off remarkably well.
The Nonya, who was our landlord, had other uses for the pandan leaves. She would cut it into smaller pieces and pound it in a mortar using the pestle. The pandan leaves are pounded till it is almost like a pulp and then she would put it onto a clean piece of white muslin cloth and squeeze out the neat green juice. Instead of pounding you can put cut pandan leaves into a blender with a bit of of water and blend it. Strain the mixture through a clean muslin cloth and use it for colouring and flavouring home-made kaya or other kuehs.
Over years, I have seen pandan leaves being used for so many local cakes and savouries. One outstanding cake is the Pandan Chiffon Cake and then there is the Pandan Layer Cake that was popular too. Pandan leaves can also be cut into smaller pieces and added to flour when dry roasting so that the pandan flavour will spread onto the flour for example when making Kueh Bangkit. A lot of drinks are also flavoured with pandan leaves, and it certainly heightens the taste. Pandan leaves can also used for wrapping chicken pieces before deep frying it. The Thais cover a whole fish with pandan leaves before wrapping it.
These days there is artificial pandan flavouring that you can get from the supermarkets. As far as possible try to use the natural leaves, otherwise, go for the dry pandan leaves and lastly if there are no other choice use pandan paste.
Pandan leaves are called rampe in Sri Lanka and is used for savoury cooking. For example, before cooking chicken curry, pandan leaves are cut into about 3 cm pieces and sauteed with the onions and other spices.
Besides cooking, pandan leaves are used for other purposes too. Tie a few pandan leaves into a knot and throw it into your kitchen cabinets. Cockroaches won’t dare go anywhere near there! Pandan leaves are said to be pain relievers and used that way to eliminate chest pain, headache, reduce fever, arthritis, earache, etc. Chewing pandan leaves is an easy way to get rid of gum pain. Bathing with water boiled with pandan leaves is useful for treating skin diseases and sunburns. According to research by Vietnamese people drinking tea of pandan leaves helps to combat or lessen the possibility of diabetes.
Our old neighbour Rokiah made Bunga Rampai when her son was circumcised. Bunga Rampai is a potpourri of mostly shredded pandan leaves, shredded kaffir lime peel, jasmines, rose petals, ylang-ylang and frangipani flowers. The pandan leaves will be shredded extremely finely. The flowers, except the jasmines, will be shredded coarsely. My mother told me that the secret of a fantastic bunga rampai is seventy-five percent leaves and twenty-five percent flowers. All these are put into a elegant glass bowl, and a few drops of rose water or jasmine oil is sprinkled on top. These days, people wrap the potpourri in organza fabric or pouches.
The North Indians use “Kewra”, and this is an extract that is distilled from the pandan flowers. These pandan leaves are more of the wild ones and have extremely strong smell. The Indians use it during religious events as well as for cooking certain dishes like the Mughlai biryanis. Kewra water is sold in most Indian grocery shops.