Pandan, or commonly referred to as Pandan leaves, is a tropical plant native to Southeast Asia. Now rare in the wild but commonly grown for culinary purposes, Pandan is a vibrant green plant with fanning leaves that look like blades. Used all over Asia in cooking, Pandan imparts a delicate but very distinctive flavor, a soft sweet nuttiness.
In Thai, Laotian, Cambodian and Indonesian cooking, Pandan leaves are used to wrap meats, chicken and fish before steaming or grilling, lending its unique flavor into these dishes. It is also commonly used in Asian desserts, particularly cakes and those with coconut milk. Pandan leaves are tied up in bunches before being thrown into coconut stews or desserts with coconut milk, allowing the leaves to simmer for long periods of time.
Pandan leaves are now readily available in frozen format in Asian grocery stores around the world, sold in clear plastic bags in tight bunches. Pandan essence is also easily found in the stores- an acceptable substitute for flavoring when fresh Pandan leaves are not available. For cakes especially, using the essence format is more prudent as the flavors are already concentrated.