Cover Photo: Marion's Kitchen

From the breakfast staple nasi lemak to the misnomer buko pandan salad, read on to learn about sweet and savoury pandan dishes from Southeast Asia.

Often dubbed the "vanilla of Southeast Asia", the pandan plant or pandanus amaryllifolius is widely used in cuisines across the region. Though its long and narrow leaves are inedible, its soft, sweet aroma and green hue are extracted to flavour and colour a variety of sweet and savoury dishes. While there is a growing repertoire of modern pandan treats including pandan Basque cheesecake or even pandan crinkle cookies, the ingredient is central to many traditional dishes across Southeast Asia.

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Nasi Lemak

Nasi lemak, which translates to rich rice, is an appropriate name for this iconic breakfast staple. Widely considered the national dish of Malaysia (but also popular in Singapore), the hefty dish marries bold flavours from roasted peanuts, fried ikan bilis (anchovies), spicy sambal, silky eggs, and a selection of viands like beef rendang or fried chicken. In addition to the cool cucumber slices, the pandan-scented coconut rice acts as a reprieve from all the intense flavours of the other components, helping to prevent an overwhelmed palette.

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Kaya

Enjoyed across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, kaya is a delicious coconut jam commonly spread upon toasted bread and served with coffee. Made with coconut milk, eggs, sugar, and pandan leaves, kaya can be prepared according to Nyonya or Hainanese practice, with the former infusing the pandan leaves at the beginning of the process resulting in a deep green spread, and the latter caramelising the sugars prior to the addition of pandan, producing a beautiful toffee colour. Apart from kaya toast, the jam is also used in other delights like kuih seri muka, a sticky rice cake topped with a Nyonya custard.

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Gai Hor Bai Toey

Gai hor bai toey, better known in the Philippines as pandan chicken, is a mouth-watering Thai chicken dish that involves marinating boneless chicken in a blend of oyster sauce, sugar, garlic, other condiments and aromatics. The chicken is then wrapped in fragrant pandan leaves before being grilled, fried or baked. The result is a succulent, sweet-salty-umami chicken full of flavour that keeps you reaching out for more. It is often served with a soy-and-toasted-sesame dipping sauce.

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Puto

While this popular Filipino kakanin (sweet rice cake) is commonly found in its plain variant, puto is also made in ube (purple yam) and pandan flavours. Made with steamed, slightly-fermented rice, this small bite-sized rice cake is light, chewy, and subtly sweet, sometimes adorned with cheese or salted egg. It is usually enjoyed as merienda (an afternoon snack), or eaten alongside savoury dishes like dinuguan (pork blood stew).

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Kuih Dadar or Dadar Gulung

The French crêpe gets a Southeast Asian twist with kuih dadar or dadar galung. These rolled pandan treats have a striking green colour from the pandan extract blended into the coconut crêpe batter, juxtaposed against the deep brown hues of the palm sugar-coated coconut filling. They are commonly found in the markets and street carts of Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

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Pandan Cake

Pandan chiffon cake (or simply, pandan cake) is a dessert popular in Singapore and Malaysia. By folding a meringue base into the cake batter, chiffon cakes achieve a notably light, soft, and airy quality. This Asian twist adds coconut milk and pandan juice into the mix, creating a delicious and unique cake.

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Buko Pandan

In the Philippines, the term buko pandan can refer to either a dessert or a beverage. The former, often called buko pandan salad, is not quite what mom referred to when she told you to eat your vegetables. Rather, it's a delectable blend of bright green pandan jelly, buko (coconut) strips, and sweetened cream and condensed milk. As a beverage, buko pandan is a type of pampalamig (cool drink with gelatinous mix-ins) which also comprises of buko strips and pandan jelly, but also has sago (tapioca pearls), coconut milk or condensed milk, and water or coconut water. 

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