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The plant shown here is a relative of Pandanus odorus, ‘fragrant screw pine’ or pandan, which is used all over Southeast Asia for its distinctive sweet smell. From the Pandanaceae family, this is a plant of great cultural significance, with many important uses.

Pandan plant

Pandan plant
Photo by Izham Khalid

While still on the plant, pandan leaves are scentless, but when extracted and slightly crushed they release an aroma similar to that of dried grass. Pandan is used to add fragrance to food, such as rice and desserts. To flavour rice, the pandan leaves are tied together and put in with the boiling rice while it cooks.

Seri muka sweets amde with Pandan juice

Seri muka sweets made with Pandan juice
Photo by Taufiq Wan

Pandan leaves can be used to wrap food before cooking, and also as a natural food colouring by boiling them in water. The juice extracted is used as a green colouring for traditional sweets such as seri muka and the modern ‘pandan swiss roll’ found in western supermarkets in Malaysia. One popular Malay dish is chicken wrapped in pandan.

Pandan leaves are also used as a source of fragrance in Southeast Asian homes, and knotted and dried, they are even used to freshen the air in Malaysian taxis! In days gone by, pandan leaves were kept in cupboards to make clothes smell nice. They were also used in jars of dried face powder to give it fragrance. At Malay weddings, the pandan leaves are cut thinly and mixed with other flowers to make a kind of potpouri called bunga rampai, to give away to guests.

However, the same fragrance that attracts people is found to be repulsive to cockroaches. Pandan leaves left in drawers and cupboards can act as a natural insect repellent, and help to keep cockroaches away. 

Another variety of pandan leaves called mengkuang is used in its dried form by Malays to make a range of woven products such as mats, bags, fans, boxes and even slippers. These are very popular among tourists. Haslina Anuar, a weaver from the state of Terengganu in the north-east of Malaysia, explains how the leaves are prepared and boiled to take off the colour. They are then dried and dyed with different colours before being woven into bags or mats.

Haslina Anuar teaching Nur Hannah how to weave mengkuang leaves to make a bag

Weaving mengkuang leaves
Photo by Taufiq Wan

A variety of wild pandan with thorny leaves could even be used as a make-shift knife to cut fish, and to make traps. Pandan also has medicinal properties as the entire plant is diuretic; the roots are believe to have anti-diabetic properties, and the leaves are traditionally used for treating diseases of the skin.

Text by Nur Hannah Wan
Interview with Haslina Anuar from HKY Collections at the World Travel Market at Excel, London, 8-11 November 2010

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