In Praise of Pandan

Fresh pandan leaves

Fresh pandan leaves

The long, glossy, dark green leaves of the pandan plant (prosaically known in English as the screwpine) are a key flavouring in South-East Asian desserts. They are used to add both a distinctive green colour and a subtle flavour to sweet dishes ranging from dainty cakes to chendol (an intriguing coconut milk concoction). Pandan leaves are also used simply as a flavouring; tied in a knot and simmered with palm sugar or coconut milk in the way that bay leaves are used to infuse a white sauce. The flavour of pandan is subtle yet distinctive – for me it has a grassy sweetness, reminiscent of freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice.

Here in London I can buy packets of fresh pandan leaves in Thai supermarkets or in Chinese supermarkets, such as See Woo in Lisle Street. I often use them when I make sago gula melaka (see my previous post), but this time I decided to make a childhood favourite of mine called kueh dadar in which pandan leaves take a central part. These are pandan pancakes, flavoured and coloured with pandan ‘juice’ made from the leaves and filled with coconut coated in palm sugar syrup. They are served neither hot nor cold but at room temperature, which brings out the pandan flavour. To be honest, making them is something of a labour of love as there are a few stages to the recipe..

The result, however, is a truly tropical dessert. To start with, there’s the glorious bright green colour of the pancakes, obtained not by adding food colouring but by using pandan juice – a colour which in South East Asia signals ‘dessert’. The combination of flavours and textures is very satisfying: soft pancakes with a subtle pandan flavour filled with chewy coconut, coated in an intensely dark caramel-flavoured palm sugar syrup. I also add in a few pieces of chopped banana – not traditional, but I feel it works.

Banana pandan pancake

Banana pandan pancake

 Pandan Pancakes aka Kueh Dadar
 Makes 8

Pandan juice:

10 fresh pandan leaves
150ml water

Palm sugar syrup:
150g palm sugar (gula melaka)
150ml water
1 pandan leaf, scraped with a fork and tied with a knot

140g plain flour
pinch of salt
2 medium eggs
200ml tinned coconut milk (stirred well so as to mix it)
oil for shallow-frying
200g shredded coconut (fresh or frozen, thawed and squeezed to get rid of excess moisture)
2 bananas, finely sliced

First make the pandan juice. Trim off any wilted parts from the pandan leaves and snip them into short pieces. Place the pandan leaves and water in a food processor and blitz into a green sludge.Sieve the pandan sludge, pressing down to extract as much pandan juice as possible. You should end up with around 150ml deep green pandan juice.

Now make the palm sugar syrup. Place the palm sugar, water and pandan leaf in a small saucepan. Heat gently, stirring now and then, until the palm sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil and cook for a few minutes until the syrup reduces slightly. Set aside to cool in its pan, then remove and discard the pandan leaf.

Next, make the pandan pancakes. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Add in the salt and break in the eggs.Gradually add in the coconut milk, whisking well with each addition. Whisk in the pandan juice, resulting in a pale green, thick, smooth batter. Set the batter aside to rest for 30 minutes.

While the batter is resting. gently heat through the palm sugar syrup in its pan. Add in the shredded coconut, mixing well to coat it thoroughly in the syrup and set aside.

Heat a medium-sized, non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Add a touch of oil. Pour in a ladleful of the pandan batter, tilting the pan to spread it out evenly. Fry for a couple of minutes until set, then turn over and fry for a further 1-2 minutes. Remove from the pan.

Frying a pandan pancake

Frying a pandan pancake

Repeat the frying process until all the batter has been used up, making 8 pancakes in all. Allow the pancakes to cool.

Place a portion of the coconut mixture in the centre of a pandan pancake, add a few pieces of sliced banana, then roll up the pancake over the filling, Repeat the process with the remaining pancakes. Serve.

 

A Passion for Mangoes

Mangoes have been a favourite fruit of mine ever since I was a child. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love them. Growing up, as I did, in Ghana, Trinidad and then Singapore, mangoes were the fruit of my childhood, plentifully and lusciously available. Documentary proof of my long-held delight in mangoes is contained in the family photo albums.

Me as a toddler reaching for mangoes in our garden in Ghana
Mangoes from our tree in Ghana – I look triumphant!

Finding mangoes when I lived in Florence as a teenager was rather harder, so they became a rare treat. I remember the thrill of finding a mango miraculously nestled in my Christmas stocking one year. Living in London, the mangoes found in British supermarkets were a disappointment: expensive, stonily hard and lacking in flavour. Chinese food shops in Chinatown proved a much better source and that was where I would go to buy mangoes, such as elegant, distinctively curved, smooth-fleshed pale yellow Thai mangoes with a pine note to their flavour. While researching my shopping guide Food Lovers London, I discovered that Indian food shops stocked boxes of mangoes called Alphonso – briefly in season during April and May. This was the mango as I remembered it – orange-fleshed, voluptuously textured and juicy.In one of childhood books, My Friend Mr Leakey, the magician Mr Leakey advises: “The only proper place to eat a mango is in your bath. You see it has a tough skin and a squashy inside, so when once you get through the skin all the juice squirts out. And that would make a nasty mess of people’s white shirts.” The author J.S. Haldane must have had Alphonso mangoes in mind.

A journey to Ealing Road in Wembley, Goodeats in Finchley Central or the Spice Shop in Drummond Street to buy boxes of Alphonso mangoes had become one of our springtime family rituals. Served after a meal with family and friends the most I might do in terms of preparation is slice the cheeks off, cut a criss-cross pattern and transform them into a mango ‘hedgehog’ for ease of eating. My favourite part of eating a mango, however, is eating the soft flesh off the hard stone – “cook’s perk” I called it in one of my books – the flesh somehow seems to taste more intensely here, rather like meat close to the bone.

A box of Alphonso mangoes

When it comes to inspiration for using ingredients imaginatively, creatively and deliciously one of my favourite chefs is Yotam Ottolenghi, so I asked him for his thoughts on mangoes. Ottolenghi, too, has happy memories of mangoes from childhood. “We had mangoes in Israel when I was growing up. A different variety from the Alphonso, larger, firmer and not as sweet. I’ve always loved mangoes. We would always simply peel it and eat it; perhaps, at the most, we might use a mango in a fruit salad. It would never have been used in savoury dishes. My family wouldn’t have dreamt of doing the outrageous things that I do with it!”

One of the culinary appeals of the mango for Ottolenghi is its texture. “Mango is a fruit that you can cook with,” he points out. “Unlike papaya which simply disintegrates, it’s got a low water content, so you can cook with it. It really keeps its identity in the dish – sometimes you want ingredients to soak up all the flavour, like a sponge, so like aubergines. Other ingredients retain their character in a dish – and every time you meet it in a bite, it’s there.”

“Because the Alphonso grows in India in the heat it has an extreme sweetness, perfumed from so much sun. Does really take you to India when you eat one. One of my recipes using Alphonsos was a curried chickpea salad – behind the dish was the idea of where the Alphonso mango comes from – so the chickpea salad was flavoured with mustard seeds, coriander seeds and turmeric. It’s a lot about texture. I wanted the chickpeas to be very soft to go with the soft Alphonso mangoes.” With his characteristic eye for the details of his dishes, Ottolenghi is very discriminating when it comes to which variety of mango to use. “For some of my salads that contain mango, I wouldn’t use Alphonso as it could be too dominant, a little bit too much,” he observes.” There’s a butterbean, cashew nut and rice noodle salad I make – Asian flavours, with lots of mint – I use normal mango in it, not Alphonso, for that dish I want a mango that blends in.”

Ottolenghi also enjoys using mangoes in sweet dishes. “Alphonso mangoes are one of the best fruits for ice cream,” he recommends. “It’s very easy to make an ice cream that’s not icy as it doesn’t have a lot of water in it. You can make it easily at home, even if you don’t have an ice cream maker. At Nopi we’ve just introduced a new dessert which is very popular, thought of by John our pastry chef there. It’s a combination of mango with lime: a little glass with a layer of mango at the bottom, kaffir lime curd in the middle, mango tapioca and diced Alphonso on top. All the different types of sweetness – the sheer sweetness of the meringue, the fruity sweetness of the mango – work very well.”

We’re not the only ones to enjoy a box of mangoes . . .

In Defence of Sago

Sago Gula Melaka

“Frog spawn!” said my husband when I told him what I was writing my next post on. He’s right. There is no getting away from it, cooked sago does indeed resemble frog spawn. Tiny, slippery, translucent globes, which even clump together in the way that floating frog spawn in a pond does. In England, the mere mention of sago arouses strong emotions, usually negative ones. Memories of school dinners and being forced to eat slimy, tasteless sago puddings . . .

My memories are from Singapore, where sago is served in a delightful pudding called sago gula melaka which consists simply of chilled cooked sago served with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. The gula melaka refers to the sugar syrup poured over the sago, made from gula melaka, the hard, dark brown sugar made from palm sap and named after the Malaysian port of Malacca. When prepared properly, sago gula melaka is flavoured by the pandan leaf, the long, glossy, dark green leaf known in English as screwpine which adds both flavour and a distinctive light green colouring to many South-East Asian desserts. Although not aromatic in the way that, say, a bay leaf is, the pandan leaf adds a very subtle, yet distinctive flavour. As a child in tropical Singapore, a serving of sago gula melaka was a treat to be savoured: the bland, cool, refreshing, jelly-like sago with rich, creamy-textured coconut milk contrasting with the dark, bitter caramel flavour of the palm sugar syrup.

In England I never quite know how it will do down with my guests or, indeed, if it will go down at all. One charming friend to whom I served it said politely “I like the coconut milk and the palm sugar syrup . . .” On the other hand, when I taught a cookery class on Singaporean food at Rosalind Rathouse’s Cookery School and demonstrated how to make sago gula Melaka then served it up, fully expecting rejection, the young women in the class – none of whom had ever come across sago– all loved it! Now so unfamiliar as to be positively exotic, maybe sago’s time has come.

Sago Gula Melaka

200g fine sago or tapioca pearls
200g palm sugar (gula Melaka)
2 pandan leaves
1 x 400ml tin of coconut milk
a pinch of salt

Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add in the sago pearls and, stirring, return to the boil. Cook for 10 minutes stirring now and then. Remove from direct heat, cover and set aside for 10 minutes. Uncover the pan, by which time the sago should be translucent, and drain in a sieve. Rinse the sago under cold running water and set aside in a sieve to drain thoroughly. Transfer the sago to four bowls rinsed with cold water, allow to cool, then chill until serving.
Place the palm sugar and 200ml of water in a heavy-based saucepan. Tie a pandan leaf in a knot and add in. Bring to the boil and simmer until the palm sugar has melted into a syrup. Strain into a jug and set aside to cool.
Shake the can of coconut milk thoroughly, then pour the coconut milk into a pan. Tie the pandan leaf in a knot and add to the coconut milk with a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, then simmer stirring until slightly reduced. Strain into a jug, cool and chill.
To serve, slide a knife around each portion of sago and transfer onto serving dishes. Pour over some coconut milk and a little of the palm sugar syrup and enjoy!