Memories of culinary school blur into a long adventure of flour and oxiclean, but there are also the mind-blowing moments, so outstanding that they leave a permanent imprint on your entire approach to food. When I was handed Pandan, my world would never be the same.
Chef called it the, “vanilla bean of Asia,” and revealed a vacuum-sealed package of tall bright, green leaves. I was instructed to chiffonade the leaves and infuse them into a large stockpot of steaming milk, with which we would use to make a simple, sweetened pandan milk with tapioca pearls.
Subtly floral and slightly grassy, the aroma instantly appealed to me. Appealed is an understatement. Not only could I hardly contain myself from sticking my entire face in the pot to breathe in its sweet steam, but I was ready to abandon vanilla beans faster than you can say “hello kitty.” I was ready to start a pandan revolution.
According to the Food Lover’s Companion, Pandan, also known as “screwpine,” is most often used to flavor rice dishes and puddings in Southeast Asia. So, when I first starting planning the trip to Singapore, Pandan was high up on my list of foods to explore.
Sure enough, the bakeries here in Singapore are full of little green-colored pastries, all flavored with pandan. While green might not be every westerner’s color preference for pastry, this former Ohioan has been stalking every Singaporean bakeshop for the stuff.
Pandan chiffon cake can be found in most all of the bakeries. While the majority come in familiar angel food cake-like, ring shapes, varieties in the more cosmopolitan areas of town surprise diners with elegant and imaginative presentations. Even the fancy, Raffles Hotel, known for creating the signature “Singapore Sling,” cocktail, carries several versions of pandan cake. The Raffles, ranking as the apex of style and luxury here in Singapore, carries a variety that takes first-place with a towering with fifteen layers. Rectangular in shape, with delicately thin layers, the simple creativity of each geometrically appealing slice, takes the cake.…if you will.
My fascination with pandan does not just come with its exquisite flavor. Here in Singapore, practically every grocery store carries fresh pandan leaves, yet in the United States its name is barely recognized. So many Asian dishes and ingredients have reached into the west and gained popularity, so it is intriguing how certain flavors travel and others do not. Why has this prevalent food remained so domestically bound?