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Pandan (Pandanus) is an aromatic plant prized for its sweet floral fragrance and versatility.
Its spiky leaves grow in fan-shaped bunches and thrive in tropical climates. Certain varieties also bear fruits that look somewhat like red-orange pinecones.
Pandan is used widely in South and Southeast Asian cuisines, though Western interest in the plant is growing due to its purported health benefits and culinary properties.
This article explains all you need to know about pandan, including its uses, benefits, and substitutes.
Pandan, also known as screwpine, is a tropical plant prized mostly for its long, blade-like leaves. It’s a popular ingredient in many Sri Lankan, Thai, and other South Asian dishes.
You can find pandan locally or in specialty markets worldwide. Its leaves are sold either frozen or fresh and measure about 12–20 inches (30–51 cm) depending on the variety.
Over 600 species exist, though not all leaves are edible — it depends on the subtype. All can be used in extracts or infusions or steamed into rice dishes for aroma.
Certain species, such as those that grow in India (Pandan odoratissimus) and the Philippines (Pandan tectorius), produce edible fruits that look like large, red-orange pinecones (
Pandan products and uses
Pandan fruit and leaves have a broad range of culinary uses.
The leaves are often boiled, juiced, or used to wrap and flavor meats, while the fruit can be eaten raw or made into marmalade. Pandan fruit is also boiled and ground into an edible, highly nutritious paste that’s a staple food in a few parts of the world.
Pandan leaves are commonly pulverized to produce an emerald-green extract. The more mature the leaf, the darker the hue and deeper the flavor.
Furthermore, pandan leaf powder is used to flavor both savory and sweet dishes. Its taste is described as a grassy vanilla with a hint of coconut.
Pandan is a tropical plant prized for its fragrant, pointy leaves. Some varieties produce edible, pinecone-shaped fruits. The leaves have long been used in non-Western medicine and are sold whole or as an extract or powder.
Here’s a nutrient breakdown for 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of pandan paste and raw fruit (
Pandan paste is a rich source of beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) portion may pack 43–80% of the DV, though the exact amount varies widely. Varieties that bear deeper yellow or orange fruit are the richest sources (
Vitamin A is important to eye health, as well as your immune system (
The paste is also high in iron, which is unusual for a fruit product. Iron helps ward off conditions like iron-deficiency anemia and aids proper blood and oxygen circulation (
Pandan fruit can be eaten raw, though it’s commonly boiled and turned into a paste that’s rich in provitamin A and iron.
While there isn’t much scientific research on pandan’s health benefits, its leaves, fruit, flowers, roots, and oil have long been used in non-Western traditional medicine (
May reduce arthritis pain
Arthritis affects millions of people worldwide and is characterized by joint pain or stiffness (
In Ayurvedic medicine, coconut oil infused with pandan leaves is applied topically to relieve arthritis aches. Its effects are thought to stem from the oil found in its leaves, which may have anti-inflammatory effects (
However, research is limited to rats. Thus, human studies are needed (9).
May help manage blood sugar
One study gave 30 healthy adults hot tea made from Pandanus amaryllifolius leaves following a standard oral (75-gram) blood sugar test. Those who drank the tea recovered better from the blood sugar test than those who drank hot water (
However, more scientific research is necessary.
May boost oral health
Some non-Western medicinal practices also use this technique to stop bleeding gums. However, this effect needs to be studied more formally.
Pandan has not been thoroughly studied, so many of its health benefits are anecdotal. Its traditional applications include joint pain relief and blood sugar management.
Because pandan hasn’t been readily studied, its side effects and interactions with medications are unknown.
Although pandan may have a mild laxative effect that could cause diarrhea if it’s consumed in large quantities, more research is needed on the exact amounts (
Keep in mind that pandan fruit paste may be high in sugar. What’s more, pandan-flavored desserts, processed foods, and candy are loaded with sugar and provide few — if any — benefits.
Thus, you may wish to limit your intake of pandan-flavored products.
Little is known about pandan’s potential side effects or interactions with medications, though it may cause diarrhea if eaten in large amounts. Certain products are also high in sugar.
Pandan is incredibly versatile.
Its leaf extract is often mixed with steamed rice and coconut milk to make a savory Malaysian dish called nasi lemak. It’s also used to flavor soups, stews, and curries.
What’s more, whole leaves are used to wrap meats before steaming or grilling, infusing them with a unique taste. The leaves and fruits of certain varieties can also be juiced (
In desserts, pandan is often paired with coconut. For example, its bright green extract is incorporated into a crepe-like batter, then stuffed with sweetened browned coconut to make an Indonesian dessert called dadar gulung.
Pandan may be sold frozen or as a powder or extract. Its leaf powder and extract are great ways to add natural coloring and nutrients to a dish.
Shop for pandan products online
Pandan has non-culinary uses, too.
For instance, to create a topical ointment for joint pain, infuse coconut oil with pandan leaves. Test it on a small area of your skin to ensure that you don’t have any allergic reactions, such as redness or itching (1
Bear in mind that this use has not been backed by human studies.
Depending on where you live, pandan may be difficult to find.
While no ideal substitutes for pandan exist, there are some ways to get by in a pinch. For instance, if you can’t get a hold of pandan leaves, you might be able to buy pandan extract or essence in Asian specialty markets.
Other potential substitutes include:
- Vanilla bean. Pods, paste, or extract from vanilla beans may lend somewhat similar sweet and floral notes.
- Collard greens. For savory dishes, chop and boil these leafy greens as you would pandan leaves, per your particular recipe.
- Matcha tea. This powder may impart an emerald-green color but also adds caffeine and an astringent flavor. If these qualities are undesirable, consider green food coloring instead.
Pandan has a wide array of uses in savory and sweet dishes. Its unique flavor and aroma aren’t easy to replicate, though vanilla comes closest to a worthy substitute.
Pandan is a versatile plant with a variety of culinary and medicinal applications across South and Southeast Asia. It may help lower your blood sugar and relieve arthritis pain, though more research is needed.
Its fruit and fragrant, pointy leaves are widely eaten and used in numerous dishes, lending a distinctive color and vanilla-like floral notes.
If it isn’t commonly grown or sold fresh in your area, look for powder, extract, or frozen pandan leaves.