Pandan commonly refers to Pandanus amaryllifolius, a plant whose aromatic leaves are used as flavouring in food and drinks, particularly rice and desserts in Malay and Peranakan cuisine.1 The plant is not commonly known to flower or fruit.2 Instead, pandan is propagated through suckers or stem cuttings.3 However, in northern India, pandan may refer to the flowers of another Pandanus species also used for flavouring, or to other Pandanus species, including some whose leaves are used for to make mats.4 Sungei Pandan and its upper reaches, Ulu Pandan, likely got their names from other species of Pandanus that grew there.5 Pandan wangi or “fragrant pandan” would be the more precise Malay name for Pandanus amaryllifolius.6

Origins and distribution
Pandan is suspected to have originated from the Moluccas, where the only known flowering specimen was found.7 From there it would have been spread by humans through Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, where it is used as a flavouring.8

Pandan can be readily recognised by the distinctive scent of its leaves. Its common form, when it is regularly harvested for its leaves, has a slender stem with long thin leaves, which have a distinctive M cross-section. The leaves have small spines along the edges and under the mid-rib. The plant grows in dense clumps with side shoots forming at the base. When left to grow wild, pandan eventually develops a stout trunk, and the upper side of its leaves become dark green. No flowers have ever been recorded, except in rare instances when the large form with a trunk develops male flowers.9

Pandan leaves are commonly used as a flavouring for Malay and Peranakan Chinese kueh, drinks, rice, kaya jam and meats.10 It is typically used with coconut as shown in cookbooks.11 For flavoured rice dishes, the rice is boiled together with knotted pandan leaves and other flavourings like coconut milk to make nasi lemak, turmeric for nasi kuning, and ghee for nasi minyak.12

Pandan leaves act as a food dye, imparting a green colour, particularly in desserts.13 It is used as a flavouring in desserts the same way as vanilla is used in European desserts.14 For instance, it replaces vanilla in the classic chiffon cake recipe to make pandan chiffon cake, which is now popular in Singapore.15 The earliest mention of pandan chiffon cake in local newspapers was a review of Bali Café in 1972.16

Pandan leaves are also used as a wrap for the dish pandan chicken. The dish seems to have been introduced to Singapore in 1981 at the Holiday Inn Thai Hawker Festival.17 Cooks from D'jit Ponchana Restaurant in Bangkok were brought to Singapore for the festival, where one of their stalls served Gai Hor Bai Toey (fried chicken wrapped in pandan leaf).18 The next year, pandan chicken was found to be sold at local hawker stalls.19 The larger type of leaves may be used by Peranakans to wrap rice dumplings for the Dragon Boat Festival.20

After pandan leaves are steeped in coconut oil, the oil is rubbed into the skin to relieve rheumatism.21 Infusions of the leaves are used as a sedative against restlessness.22 In Thailand such infusions have been traditionally used for diabetes.23 In addition, pandan leaves are used by taxi drivers to repel insects, and pandan extracts have been shown to have some repelling effect on cockroaches.24 The ground leaves are also used to deter Callosobruchus chinensis, a bean weevil, to prevent infestations of mung bean seeds.25

The pandan fragrance is used in potpourri, called bunga rampai in Malay, for spiritual ceremonies.26

Variant names
Scientific: Pandanus odorus Ridley (used 1925–78)27

English: fragrant screwpine; fragrant pandan28

Malay: pandan wangi; pandan rampeh (Javanese); Seuke bangu (Achenese); pandan musang (Sundanese)29

Chinese: 香兰 (xiang lan); 斑兰 (ban lan)30

Tamil: பாண்டான்31

Timothy Pwee

1. Hidayah Amin, Kuih: From Apam to Wajik, A Pictorial Guide to Malay Desserts (Singapore: Helang Books, 2020), 267 (Call no. RSING 641.86 HID); Susheela Raghavan, Flavours of Malaysia: A Journey Through Time, Tastes, And Traditions (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2010), 331. (Call no. RSING 641.59595 RAG)
2. Benjamin C. Stone, “Studies in Malesian Pandanaceae XVII on the Taxonomy of ‘Pandan Wangi’: A Pandanus Cultivar with Scented Leaves,” Economic Botany 32, no. 3 (1978): 285–93. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
3. C. C. de Guzman and J. S. Siemonsma, eds., Spices (Bogor: PROSEA Foundation, 1999), 164, 166. (Call no. RCLOS 633.830959 SPI)
4. Loo Choo Teng, T. C. Shen and S. H. Goh, “The Flavouring Compound of the Leaves of Pandanus Amaryllifolius,” Economic Botany 33, no. 1 (1979): 72–74. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
5. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Toponymics: A Study of Singapore Street Names (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International, 2003), 292 (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV); C. A. Gibson-Hill, “Malay Hats and Dish-covers,” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 24, no. 1 (1951): 133–58 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); H. N. (Ridley, “Malay Plant Names,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 30 (July 1897): 31–283. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)

6. Stone, “Studies in Malesian Pandanaceae XVII,” 285–93.  
7. De Guzman and Siemonsma, Spices, 164.  
8. De Guzman and Siemonsma, Spices, 164, 166.
9. De Guzman and Siemonsma, Spices, 165; National Parks Board, Skyrise Gardening in Highrise Homes, 3rd ed., ed. Chin See Chung and Elisabeth Chan (Singapore: National Parks Board, 2001), 164. (Call no. RSING 635.9671 SKY)
10. Raghavan, Flavors of Malaysia, 13, 20, 22, 239, 331.
11. Terry Tan, Terry Tan's Straits Chinese Cookbook (Singapore: Times Books International, 1981), 145–61. Call no. RSING 641.5929505957 TAN
12. Raghavan, Flavors of Malaysia, 331.  
13. Aini Salim, Kuih dari Singapura (Kuala Lumpur: Utusan Publications & Distributors, 2011), 76. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 AIN)
14. Robert Danhi, Southeast Asian Flavors: Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, & Singapore (El Segundo, CA: Motar & Press, 2008), 37. (Call no. RSING 641.5959 DAN)
15. Tan Lee Leng, “Pandan Chiffon Cake, a Local Favourite,” Straits Times, 29 August 1979, section two, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Wendy Hutton, “Returning to Relish Barbecue Chicken,” New Nation, 5 August 1972, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Irene Hoe, “Juggling with Chicken Dishes,” New Nation, 11 September 1981, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Hoe, “Juggling with Chicken Dishes.”
19. Margaret Chan, “Crab Claw Fritters Fried to a Commendable Crisp,” Sunday Nation, 20 June 1982, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Peter K. L. Ng, Richard Corlett and Hugh T. W. Tan, eds., Singapore Biodiversity: An Encyclopedia of the Natural Environment and Sustainable Development (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, 2011), 406. (Call no. RSING 333.95095957 SIN)
21. De Guzman and Siemonsma, Spices, 164.  
22. De Guzman and Siemonsma, Spices, 165.
23. De Guzman and Siemonsma, Spices, 165.  
24. Ng, Corlett and Tan, Singapore Biodiversity, 406; Nur Aqila Binti Kamarol Zamal and Mariani Ayu Binti Omar, “Repellent Activity of Plants Extraction against Cockroaches (Periplaneta Americana, Blatella Germanica)” (paper presented at e-proceedings of 4th International Conference on Research in TVET Studies (ICOR-TVET 2019), 9 September 2019), 145–47; J. Li and S. H. Ho, “Pandan Leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius Roxb.) as a Natural Cockroach Repellent,” CiteSeerX, accessed 28 February 2021.
25. De Guzman and Siemonsma, Spices, 165.  
26. I. H. Burkill, A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Agriculture Malaysia, 2002), 1677. (Call no. RSING 634.9095951 BUR)
27. Stone, “Studies in Malesian Pandanaceae XVII,” 285–93.  
28. De Guzman and Siemonsma, Spices, 164.  
29. Stone, “Studies in Malesian Pandanaceae XVII,” 285–93.  
30. National Parks Board, Skyrise Gardening, 164.
31. Pirēmā Laṭcumaṇan̲ பிரேமா லட்சுமணன், சுவைத்துப் பார்ப்போம் : தேர்ந்தேடுக்கப்பட்ட சிங்கப்பூர் இந்திய உணவகங்களின் சமையல் குறிப்புகள் (Singapore: Radio Corporation of Singapore, 1999), 10. (Call no. RSING 641.5954 SUV)

The information in this article is valid as of Octoberr 2021 and correct as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Aromatic plants

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