How is the South Asian pandan leaf becoming more popular and why Mumbai restaurants are embracing it

20 May,2024 11:53 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Nascimento Pinto

As the summer heat takes over Mumbai, the pandan leaf seems to be becoming more popular than ever before. It is being used not only by bartenders but also by chefs in different kinds of drinks and food to give them a delicious and refreshing flavour that Mumbaikars are warming up to out of curiosity

The pandan leaf has a grassiness and rice-like taste that goes well with different kinds of dishes and drinks and pairs well with coconut. Photo Courtesy: Special Arrangment

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The newly opened Mokai on Chapel Road in Bandra serves a refreshing Pandan Coconut Cooler and even a Pandan Cream Croissant and even a kaya butter, which has a subtle flavour of the leaf, on its menu. Their fascination for the leaf is understandable when Karreena Bulchandani, founder of the South Asian-inspired all-day café says she was introduced to it when she lived in China, where it is also popular apart from South Asia. "I used to have this dessert called Khanom Tako when I used to live in Guangzhou. We used to get it in a restaurant called Bangkok City back in the day. At first, you may feel that this isn't your taste, but when you end up trying it two or three times, there is no going back, it is one of the most addictive flavours out there." It was only natural for her to hold on to these influences. So, what is making Mumbai's chefs, bartenders and restauranteurs like Bulchandhani include on their menu?

For Bulchandani, it was simple. While the pandan leaf was being used in cocktails in Mumbai, she saw a dearth of cafes, restaurants and bars using it in their food and that is where she decided to step in and include it not only in her drinks but also in her bakes. Interestingly, the Bandra café is only one among many city restaurants that have been making use of the leaf. If you are one to experiment with your food, then you may have realised that the pandan leaf is appearing a lot more on the menu than it did a few years ago. The leaf has travelled a long way from Southeast Asia to not only be used in serving South Asian food in Mumbai but also to be included in Indian dishes and drinks.

Making pandan leaf popular
Renjie Wong, area director, India, Middle East & South Asia (Mumbai) with the Singapore Tourism Board, sheds more light about the leaf. He says, "Pandan is native to the maritime Southeast Asian archipelago - which Singapore lies at the crossroads of - and is widely used in both kitchens and traditional medicine halls all across our part of the world. Modern science tells us that its compounds have medicinal properties across the heart, skin, and gut system."

Recently, the tourism board has also been involved in a flurry of activity as they introduce people to Singaporean flavours in their food and drinks. Interestingly, the pandan leaf prominently features on the food and cocktail menus - showcasing its potential to become a gateway into South Asian cuisine. Wong adds, "Pandan is one of the unique and authentic Singaporean ingredients used in local cuisine. Nicknamed ‘Vanilla of the East', pandan leaves are aromatic with a distinctively sweet fragrance that complements the dish it is infused with."

Such is its culinary significance that the tourism board even collaborated with Naturals Ice Cream's Naturals Now to introduce a pandan coconut sundae late last year before Svami introduced Pandan-flavoured tonic water earlier this year. "We wanted to give food lovers a slice of the island city's gastronomical delights and inspire them to visit us and explore these flavours in person on their next holiday to Singapore," adds Wong. The use of the dishes was even visible in the limited-edition Singapore menu at 45 Social restaurants across 9 cities, apart from the cocktail menus that saw two Singapore bartenders use it in their cocktails during their bar takeover at PCO Cocktail Bar and even bakes at TwentySeven Bakehouse in Bandra. Earlier this month, this writer also tasted a delicious dessert called Sago Gula Melaka at a Singapore cuisine pop-up held over three days at Masque, which is India's top restaurant to appear on Asia's 50 Best list. It was a chilled sabudana pudding with palm jaggery, five-spiced pinenuts, and a pandan coconut nitrogen gelato - that gave it a unique fragrance and flavour that stays on your palate long after you finish it.

With a grassy, floral perfume, the Mumbai-based expat says it has both savoury and sweet applications. He explains, "A knot of pandan is thrown into a pot of jasmine rice for the traditional Singaporean Hainanese chicken rice, and it is in the pandan-coconut-jaggery holy trinity that anoints most Singaporean Malay desserts. Though my personal favourite way to enjoy pandan's unmistakable perfume is on its own. Boiled briefly with flower teas or loose-leaf teas and barely sweetened through, just as my mother makes huge, chilled jugs every weekend."

Versatility of pandan leaves
Bulchandani, on the other hand, believes the floral and nutty hints of pandan can enhance any base of a food or drink item. She shares, "The freshness is unmatched especially when you pair it with coconut water or anything coconut because they pair like bread and butter. They are just made for each other." It is no surprise then with their pandan coconut water on the menu. Such is its scope in dishes that they have done trials for pandan coconut sticky rice, and believe it adds a unique flavour to even pandan mascarpone cream.

The leaf does feature in the Asian-inspired traditional dish Hainanese chicken rice at ITC Maratha. However, it is also an integral part of other unsuspecting dishes on the menu like the Pandan Coconut Crepe and Pandan 'n' Peanut Mutton Soup in the last one year. While the pandan and coconut combination is one that is instantly relatable, the layered combination of pandan with peanuts in a mutton soup brings out exciting flavours. Aditi Chatterjee, senior sous chef, Peshwa Pavilion, at the five-star property, has been using the leaves, which are pre-dominantly used in Asian cuisine, since a few years now from her early days as a chef.
The floral and unique smell attracts Chatterjee. She says that even though it does not have a taste of its own, the use of these leaves in various combinations leads a soulful fragrance to the overall dish. She explains, "Pandan leaves are very sturdy and malleable. This unique property allows for rice to be steamed in the leaves by forming a pocket. These leaves can be used to wrap small cuts of marinated meat and then grilled. They are an excellent ingredient to make flavourful stock and syrups. The combination of pandan leaves along with milk to make a desert is a match made in heaven." Interestingly, the Mumbai chef has observed that the pandan leaf is certainly becoming more popular, especially in five-star properties, apart from stand-alone restaurants, thus giving a unique take to the usual Asian menus.

Pandan with cocktails and mocktails
Even as pandan leaves are being readily used in food, their use in cocktails is only growing. Tango Tamari in Juhu has also jumped on the bandwagon to serve two unique gin-based cocktails - Pan-Co and Negroni T&T. Pranav Modi, brand mixologist, explains, "The first one is a twist to the classic Gin Fizz and the Pandan liqueur lends a touch of grassy sweetness, while fresh lime and mint add a vibrant kick. The vegan foamer creates a light and airy texture, making it a perfect summer drink."

The other one showcases how the combination of pandan, and coconut goes beyond dishes to also be infused in drinks. "The coconut fat-washed Campari adds a subtle sweetness and richness, balanced by the dry gin and aromatic pandan cordial. A touch of vermouth bianco provides depth and complexity, while the Pan-Cocalero Latin Herbal Spirit adds a layer of earthy botanicals. It gives out a lovely hazelnut flavour once mixed with cocalero herbal spirit," he adds. While making the cocktails with pandan liqueur and cordial, the beautiful aroma is a winner, but Modi also loves playing around with the flavours of grassiness and a bit of rice that makes it unique. "It has been on our menu since the inception of the restaurant. To the guest, it was a bit surprising since it's not used much in cocktails. I remember one of my guests that I gave it to had spent a lot of her time in Thailand and she was ecstatic," he adds, while suggesting that the Negroni T&T goes well with sashimi, as you get lovely flavours of rice without the rice actually being there.

Just like Tango Tamari, they use pandan leaves even at Foo not only in their food but also in a variety of cocktails that they keep experimenting with, ever since they started out in 2018. One of quite a few cocktails that has been constant on the menu is the signature, Foo Queen. It is made with a blend of Absolut vodka, tequila infused with pandan, lychee, jasmine tea syrup, rose water, and soda. Keenan Tham, managing director and co-founder, Pebble Street Hospitality, which owns Foo, says, "The Pandan leaves add a fragrant sweetness that complements the Absolut Vodka and lychee, while enhancing the jasmine tea syrup and rose water. The cocktail is well balanced with vodka and tequila, with the aromatic sweetness of pandan, creating a refreshing and harmonious drink."

With pandan leaves on the menu for the last six years, Tham has seen the popularity of the leaves grow. While he has seen them being popularly used in desserts, they have noticed a curiosity and appreciation among diners who experience it in their regular and limited-edition menus. He shares, "Pandan leaves are gradually gaining popularity in Mumbai and across India. As more people explore global cuisines and innovative flavours, the demand for unique ingredients like Pandan leaves has increased. Most recently, we featured Pandan in our Chinese New Year menu with the ‘Lunar Luxe' cocktail, which included Jose Cuervo Silver Tequila, pomelo, pandan, agave nectar, and grapefruit tonic water."

Even Mitra Walke, founder of the newly opened Coast & Bloom in Dadar, says in celebrating the coast, they have used a variety of leaves and the inclusion of pandan on the menu was automatic. "The Asian rising star is known for its ability to infuse dishes with a unique, almost rice-like aroma. But why stop at rice? We saw its potential extend beyond traditional dishes, and that's how the 'Panda-Panda' mocktail was born." The refreshing mocktail is sweet and tangy with cranberry, gooseberry, zesty kafir leaf and the pandan leaf, which adds a tropical touch that Mumbaikars will gravitate too as the summer heat takes over the city.

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