Pandan Story

After years of research, the quest of finding the national cake of Malaysia and our neighbour, Singapore is finally over. Lug by inbound tourists and just as well loved by the locals, the modest pandan chiffon cake has made headlines recently, named as one of the world’s 17 best cakes by the United States based broadcaster CNN. While the sheer pleasure of tearing into this fluffy, soft-as-clouds green hue goodness is ubiquitous across the two nations, what exactly lead to their glory?

 

Apparently, when the green colored juice of the screwpines leaves is infused to the classic chiffon cakes, CNN calls for a revelation of “natural, woodsy flavor.” Early recipes can date back as far as 1970, flaunting women’s pride in the kitchen at that period, as said by culinary enthusiast Violet Oon. While the exact origin is still vague, it is assuredly an evolution of Angel cake technique from the western colonialization, fusion with a touch of Southeast Asia signature ingredient, pandan leaves. Nevertheless, pastry chef Janice Wong loves the cake which imbibes vivid childhood memories as much as well all do, whether it’s for breakfast with a cup of teh “o” or afternoon munch.

 

History aside, the perfect pandan chiffon cake should taste good, smell good and look good, a quality achieved only through squeezing the juice out of a fresh pandan leaf. Chef Malcolm Lee from one Michelin-starred peranakan restaurant Candlenut revealed that a good pandan chiffon cake is moist and fluffy on the inside and a beautiful golden brown color on the outside. While an ongoing dispute on whether it is worthy of the title in this food-obsessed nation, there is no doubt that it a well-baked pandan chiffon cake generates a sentimental feeling no other cakes can and a rather more positive influence on the culinary tourism on local bakeries than the contradictory.

 

PANDAN IN MALAYSIAN AND SINGAPOREAN DESSERT

If the Westerns knew vanilla, Southeast Asians, on the other hand, knew pandan and embraced it. Typically grown in the garden right at every doorstep, versatile as it is, the tropical herb boasts a distinct, sweet, floral-like note. Pounded and strained to yield its extract, the delicate flavor pairs well with coconut milk, glutinous rice, milk and brown sugar, creating a robust dessert with complementing flavors and tastes like a match made in heaven.

Although it is available in fresh, dried and frozen, it’s the fresh leaves that bring a distinct flavor no other substitute can. That being said, Malaysia and Singapore leaves no pandan dessert unexplored and is home to the best pandan creation the world has to offer.

There are no bad moods that cannot be temporarily cured by a few forkfuls, if you can resist, of kuih bakar pandan. Dense and rich, the Malaysian traditional kueh is generally baked in flower shaped mold. The caramelized fragrant top crust with rich, creamy pandan custard is almost like a tropical clafoutis, only better. Perhaps, a contemporary version of half-cake and half-kuih of decadent five layers moist pandan cake with kuih-like filling is an upscale creation of pandan dessert. The kuih like filling is made with a freshly squeezed pandan juice, coconut milk and mung bean starch which once refrigerated, thickens into a smooth texture, balancing the sturdy sponge cake. However, nothing beats the scorching sun and humid weather of Southeast Asia with a bowl of traditional chendol which quench your thirst away. Chilly and sweet, the shaved ice drizzled with a generous amount of luscious Gula Melaka and creamy coconut milk is not complete without the vibrant green starched pandan noodle.

The usage of pandan leaves has been and will always evolve in Malaysia and Singapore, with new culinary creation infusing the pride of Southeast Asia coming up every now and then. Just maybe, the mighty pandan leaf is the Asian ingredient your desserts are missing cause when processed well, a little touch of pandan can never go wrong.

 

PANDAN IN ASIA

Popular all across Southeast Asia, pandan is commonly used in most sweet and savory dishes, wrapping meats before steaming or grilling. The particular aromatic herb is used to add an extra kick of flavor to dishes and drinks, either through their juice, or the leaves itself. In Indonesia, a couple of leaves of pandan are tied in a knot and added to a pot of coconut milk and turmeric creates an amazingly fragrant “nasi kuning”, a dish significant to the Indonesian culture. Whereas in Thailand, pandan’s long, sturdy leaves perfectly wrap the bite-sized coconut milk marinated chicken, imbuing the meat with a nutty flavor from the caramelization of the sweet marinade through the deep-frying cooking technique. Burmese, on the other hand, loves their kyauk kyaw, a dessert radiating its beauty from the two distinct layer jelly dessert; one translucent and one opaque. Its mild coconut flavor combined with the floral fragrance is a simple, refreshing five ingredients treat which you can even cut it up to make buko pandan. A bowl of this Filipino dessert consists of strings of pandan and coconut jelly, finest shredded young coconut mixed with cream and condensed milk. As everyman’s vanilla, this emerald green essence is a daily necessity in one’s household.

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Regina Wiriadinata
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