Pandan Is The Asian Ingredient You Need To Try

The mighty pandan leaf is the Asian ingredient your desserts are missing

Finding an unforgettable meal in a far-flung destination, something you'll fantasize about for years to come, can be the crowning moment of a trip: escamoles eaten at a local café in Mexico City during a thunderstorm, homemade sausage consumed après-ski on a mountain in Switzerland. Sometimes that experience is completely unfamiliar. Other times, it reminds you of a fond memory: grape-flavored sweets from your childhood or an obscure relish sampled at a market once in Istanbul.

On a recent visit to Malaysia, this moment came via kuih bakar pandan. Asia itself is a hot wok of fascinating flavors, and Malaysia, in particular, is home to some of the most intriguing local cuisines, thanks to the melding of three different cultures: Malay, Chinese and Indian. Nasi lemak, laksa, roti canai, sataythere is no end to the array of distinctive dishes that come out of this country. But of all the things that can make one salivate, it wasn't the usual steaming bowl of noodles or flavorful curry, but rather a little green dessert made from the pandan leaf, called kuih bakar.

It was after an eight-hour drive through the Malaysian countryside en route to a resort on the country's east coast that this love affair began. Half-moon-shaped treats, bright green in color with an earthy flavor and a sweet and gooey filling, were laid out on a tray as a welcome gift. The taste was reminiscent of a chilled tea I used to find at a massage parlor in Vietnam, a combination of rice and matcha—something I've been fantasizing about ever since yet have found nowhere else in the world. 

At breakfast the next morning, the little treats lay among a selection of other kuih (desserts). These were the same bright-green color but with the sort of griddle marks you might find on a perfectly cooked omelet. They had the same earthy flavor but the texture of a thick, well-set custard.

When asked what their addictively nutty,grassy flavor was, the host offhandedly answered "pandan," baffled by the acute interest in such a common Asian ingredient (get the recipe for coconut-pandan flan).

Widely cultivated throughout the continent, the pandan plant (also known as screw pine) is frequently used in cooking and as an alternative medication for relieving pain and anxiety, and detoxifying the body. "I usually refer to pandan as Southeast Asian vanilla," says Kyo Pang, owner and chef of Kopitiam, a Malaysian coffeehouse in New York's Lower East Side. "We love the aroma so much that most of us would even grow it in our backyard."  

Pandan leaves are prepared by boiling them in coconut milk. "The heat will force out the flavor," Pang says, which is then used in everything from rice to fish dishes, as well as a range of sweet desserts. "We have more than 68 kinds of kuih. All of the recipes were passed along from [one] generation of Nyonya (descendants of Chinese immigrants) to the next," Pang says.

But what about that kuih bakar from the resort? What were those little green treats made of? "The recipe is from Dungun, Terengganu, where (the) Tanjong Jara Resort is situated. It's a family recipe that has been passed down and maintained through the chefs," the resort host, Serena, explained.

Back in New York, the search began for kuih bakar at home. I headed to Kopitiam on one of the hottest days of the year—one of those swampy New York days when thick air clings to you like a mosquito to a murky pool of water. Three diners sat in the window feasting on Malaysian dishes. Chef Pang was in the tiny kitchen, effortlessly turning out food in the heat. There was no air-conditioning, which didn't seem to phase anyone. After all, have you been to Malaysia in the summer?

"I only use the [pandan] from Thailand, because it's better and [grown] closer to Malaysia," Pang explained. Her secret to mastering the dessert: "patience, love and commitment."

Maybe it was because I ate my dessert on the street in the swampy, Malaysia-like heat, the surroundings which felt so authentic, that for a brief moment the earthy flavor transported me back to the east coast of Malaysia, where this journey began.

And that journey is what traveling is all about.