The stiff, bright green pandanus leaf is used for its colour and flavour in curries and rice dishes in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Chinese, Indonesia and the S.E. Asian countries. There is no real substitute for the unusual nutty, grassy but sweet flavour of the leaf, which is cut into pieces or tied in a knot and added to dishes. Different varieties have flavours that are variously described as rose-like, almondy, and milky sweet, vanilla-like. (There are over 700 varieties of Pandanus, some edible and some not. The most aromatic types are from Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.)
Screwpine leaf was the name given by English traders who travelled to Asia. The Indian name for it is Rampe and in Bangladesh it is called ketaki. Kewra is the flower of the Pandan plant.
A Pandanus leaf is long, thin, narrow, and green and can be bought fresh, frozen, dried or powdered. As usual, the dried leaves have less fragrance and flavour than the fresh leaves.
Fresh pandanus leaves are available from Asian and some Indian grocery stores, and occasionally you can find them in markets and specialty shops. Store them whole, in a plastic bag in the freezer. Bright green Pandanus leaf powder can also be bought from spice shops – store it away from light to retain its colour.
Using Pandanus in Cooking
The leaf is used in curries of Sri Lanka and in Malaysia, Bali, and Thailand. It is commonly used for its flavouring and colouring. The leaves are tied in a knot and placed in soups, stews, curries, rice dishes, puddings and curries as they cook. The leaf is usually removed from a dish before eating, or served as a garnish but not eaten.
The leaf is also bruised or raked with a fork to release its aroma, pounded to release its aromatic juice, or even boiled to obtain its flavour for stocks and drinks. Pandanus leaves are also used as wrappers in South East Asian cooking to provide flavour to foods, and is used to give colour to glutinous rice desserts, candies, puddings, soups, and coconut drinks. In China, the leaves are woven into a basket which is then used as a pot for cooking rice.
Pandan leaf can also be used as a complement to chocolate in many dishes, such as ice cream. It also pairs well with coconut milk, glutinous rice, lemongrass, milk, brown sugar, and turmeric.
In Indian cooking, pandan is used to enhance the flavour of pulao, biryani and sweet coconut rice pudding, payesh, if basmati rice is not used. It acts as a cheap substitute for the basmati rice fragrance as one can use normal, non-fragrant rice and with the help of pandan the dish tastes and smells like basmati.
Some recipes that include Pandanus are here.
Pandanus Flower and Kewra
Kewra is the flower of a variety of pandanus, and can be found sold as an essence. The flowers are golden and have a fragrant, strong, and sweet aroma. Kewra has an unusual but pleasant taste. It is used to flavour rice, drink, and desserts in Northern India and in South East Asia. The very floral fragrance gives a calming influence and is said to help in mental relaxation. Kewra also combines well with other floral waters such as rose water and orange blossom water, and they can be combined in any recipe that uses one or the other.
The pandanus flower is more delicate and fragrant than the leaf and is used to perfume biryanis. It goes well with ingredients such as rice, coconut, lemongrass, brown sugar, star anise, cumin, and nutmeg.
The flower’s extract, kewra, is commonly used to flavour Indian desserts such as rasgulla, gulab jamun, and rasmalai.
Recipes including Kewra are here.
Therapeutic and Other Uses
In India, screwpine leaves are sacred to Siva. In many Indian villages, the leaves are also tossed into open wells to scent the drinking water.
The leaves are a diuretic and they have been used to treat various skin diseases.
Powdered leaves are also used to combat weevils which infest mung beans.
In South East Asia, the scented oil is used as a cockroach repellent.
The leaves of the various non-edible varieties of Pandanus are used for basket weaving and other crafts.