Pandanus leaf, also known as pandan leaf, comes from a herbaceous tropical plant that grows in South and Southeast Asian countries. Pandan leaves are valued for their versatility in cooking. These leaves are often sold in the markets, but if you are not from any of the South Asian countries it can be difficult to procure fresh pandan leaves. Luckily, there is a pandanus leaf substitute that is closest to the real pandan leaf.
It is important to note that pandanus leaves are floral, sweet, herby, grassy, and also gives that hint of coconut so that you know exactly what characteristics to look for in a substitute. Depending on where you are and what pandan leaf usage your recipe calls for, there is a substitute that can give you the closest experience to a real pandan leaf. So we are putting our recommendations for each purpose.
1. Banana Leaf – the best Pandanus leaf substitute as a wrap
Pandanus leaves give a unique aroma and taste. Malaysian recipes, for example, use pandanus leaves to wrap meats and other foods before steaming or grilling. In the Philippines, many households use pandan leaves when cooking rice by simply adding them into the uncooked rice covered with water.
So if your recipe calls for a pandan leaf as a wrap, the best pandanus leaf alternative is a banana leaf. While you can’t get the exact same aroma and taste from the pandan leaves, banana leaves are also widely used to wrap foods for steaming and grilling in Southeast Asian countries.
2. Pandan Extract – a Pandanus Leaf alternative to flavor food
The next best thing to a real pandanus leaf is, of course, the extract that comes from it. Some pandan extracts can be highly concentrated so you need to use them lightly or dilute them in water. Panda extracts can be used in many recipes to give that sweet, vanilla-like floral fragrance.
So if you are working on a stew, marinade, or sauce recipe that lists pandan leaves, the pandan extract is the best substitute. Pandan is also known as Screwpine and some store attendants are not familiar with the name Pandanus or Pandan so you may ask them to help you find a Screwpine extract.
3. Kewra Essence – a Pandan Leaf substitute for desserts and drinks
Kewra essence is made from Pandanus flowers. This is used as a substitute for Pandanus leaves in many desserts, snacks, and drinks. It’s an exotic flavoring agent used in many varieties of Indian and Pakistani cuisines, particularly in sweets but also in non-sweet dishes, such as various curries and biryanis.
If you are looking for pandan leaves substitute to complete a dessert or snack recipe, Kewra essence is highly recommended. Though their flavor is completely different from Pandanus leaves, people often use them side by side when cooking. If you can’t find Kewra in essence or extract form, you can get the more diluted Kewra water.
Other Pandanus Leaf Alternatives That You May Already Have In Your Cupboard:
1. Vanilla Beans
Vanilla beans – or pods, extracts, and paste – provide a similar soft aroma, floral notes, and sweet delicate taste as the pandanus leaves. Vanilla and Pandan can be used interchangeably. In fact, it is said that pandan is to Asia as Vanilla is to the Western world and many trained chefs have been exploring these two as a substitute to one another in many recipes.
2. Thai Basil
Many use Thai basil to make strong-flavored dishes in place of pandanus leaves. They give close herbaceous yet sweet flavor notes as the pandanus leaves. This can’t be used in desserts because of its distinct tang. If you don’t have Thai basil, you can use dried basil.
3. Kaffir Lime Leaves
These fragrant leaves are an indispensable ingredient to Southeast Asian recipes. It has a distinctive citrus flavor which can be a bit strong so it’s best to use in moderation. It’s commonly used in curries, soups, stir fries or stocks.
4. Collard Greens
Collard greens have a very similar taste to cabbage as they are in the same vegetable family. But these are also a popular pandan leaf substitute when creating savory dishes. Just chop and boil the leafy greens like the pandanus leaves indicated in the recipe. Do not forget to remove the hard stems before cooking.
This native Mediterranean herb is also versatile and can be used in salads and soups recipes in place of Pandanus leaves.
6. Matcha Tea
Matcha tea powder when used in recipes gives that emerald green color just like the pandanus leaves. But matcha tea has a bitter taste and has caffeine content. If you do not like these qualities of the matcha tea, you can opt for another food coloring instead. It is worth noting though that matcha has several health benefits.
Can I replace Pandan Essence with Pandan Paste?
Yes, you can. But most pandan pastes in the market are often a commercial variety of pandan essence so it will not be as good as the essence.
Is Pandan a Lemongrass?
No, Pandan is not a Lemongrass. They may look similar but they are not the same. Lemongrass smells like a lemon while the Pandan leaves smell like grassy vanilla. Both are usually used to make herbal teas for their health benefits.
Are all Pandan leaves edible?
Only the Pandanus amaryllifolius that grows abundantly in Southeast Asia is used for cooking but the leaves themselves are not edible.
Are Kewra and Pandan leaves the same?
Kewra is an extract that is distilled from the Pandanus flower. They basically come from the same plant – Pandanus.
Pandanus leaves are very versatile not only for cooking. They are also used in medicinal applications in South and Southeast Asia. While it is not entirely replaceable, the pandanus leaf substitutes we recommend here are the closest ones in terms of culinary usage.
Many countries outside the Asian continent have Asian grocery stores nowadays. If you live or work close to one, you will often find frozen pandan leaves. Pandan powder and pandan paste are also great options for substitutes too, just like the pandan extract. However, they may only be sold in these Asian stores as their shelf life can be shorter than the extract.