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 Savoury Snack from Singapore: Ikan Bilis Goreng

I often feel that the world divides into those who love strong, salty, fishy flavours such as anchovies and those who loathe them. I am very firmly in the former camp, perhaps because that salty fishy taste is a key flavour in South-East Asian food; one only has to think of blachan (shrimp paste) or fish sauce to see what I mean.

This recipe for ikan bilis goreng uses ikan bilis, tiny, dried whole fish which in London one can find sold in packets in Chinese supermarkets or Thai food shops. For those who baulk at the idea of eating whole fish (however small) they are sold both head on and headless. During my guided tours of Chinatown’s food shops I often point them out and explain that these little silvery-grey dried fish can be transformed into a tasty snack – whereupon waves of polite scepticism radiate back at me.

Malay anchovies

Ikan bilis


Let me, therefore, share with you how to cook ikan bilis goreng (ie ‘fried’ ikan bilis). It’s a very simple dish in which the ikan bilis are deep-fried. I deep-fry them twice to really crisp them up. Often ikan bilis are served simply deep- fried, then seasoned with salt and sugar. They can also, however, be given extra flavour by frying them with a chilli sambal paste. I like using a simple, traditional flavouring paste, made from onion seasoned with chilli powder and turmeric and a sprinkling of sugar as the ikan bilis fry.

Frying ikan bilis with onion paste

Frying ikan bilis with onion paste

I serve ikan bilis cooked this way with drinks at parties and they always vanish. There is something extraordinarily more-ish about them. It’s to do with the salty-sweet flavour, created by adding sugar to salty dried fish. The chilli kick, lurking in the background, adds to the allure. There’s also something about the texture – the yielding peanuts combined with the crisp yet tough texture of the dried fish – which is deeply satisfying.

ikan bilis goreng

ikan bilis goreng

Ikan bilis goreng

Oil for deep-frying

100g ikan bilis

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 tsp chilli powder

½ tsp ground turmeric

3 tsp sugar

200g roast peanuts

Add oil into a saucepan or a deep frying pan to a depth of around 2.5cm and heat through.

Add in the ikan bilis and deep-fry for a couple of minutes over a medium heat, then remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Return the ikan bilis to the hot oil and fry again until golden-brown and crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Blend the chopped onion, chilli powder and turmeric into a paste (I use my trusty Waring ProPrep for this).

Heat 2 tbsp of the oil used for deep-frying in a large, heavy-based frying pan. Add in the onion paste and fry, stirring, for 1-2 minutes until it smells fragrant.

Add in the ikan bilis and fry, stirring, to coat the fish in the onion mixture. Add in the peanuts, mixing well.

Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the fish and peanuts and fry, stirring, for 3-4 minutes, making sure that all the fish and peanuts are thoroughly coated in the onion paste. Spread out the ikan bilis mixture on a tray lined with kitchen paper and set aside to cool.

Serve the ikan bilis a pre-dinner nibble with drinks such as a sprightly gin and tonic with ice and or use in nasi lemak, a Malaysian coconut rice dish (for which recipe watch this blog!).