A few months ago, I was at my favourite Thai grocery store picking up some kaffir lime leaves when I noticed they had frozen packages of pandan leaves. I’ve had pandan flavoured dishes before, but I’d never actually seen the leaves. Curiosity perked, I threw the package into the basket. Upon getting home, my newly discovered pandan leaves found themselves in the freezer where over time, they were covered over in layers of other shiny new ingredients, until they were all but forgotten.
During a recent expedition into the frozen depths of the my freezer, I decided to do something with the 4lbs of rib tips I’d picked up for $1.29/lb at Fresh Direct. Digging a little further I uncovered a corner of something curiously green. Tossing aside some chicken thighs, a puck of pie dough, and some frozen strawberries, I uncovered a slightly frosty bag of bright green pandan leaves. “Perfect!” I thought.
In case you’re not familiar with pandan, they’re the leaves of the pandanus plant, which grows all over Asia, going by names such as screw pine (English), cây cơm nếp (Vietnamese), and Nioi-takonoki (Japanese). It’s commonly used in both desserts and savoury dishes in Thai, Filipino, Indonesian, and other Southeast Asian cuisines, adding an earthy green flavour to everything it touches. The flowers and fruit are also used and the leaves are even woven into bags and mats.
Since I’ve never cooked with pandan before, I knew this experiment could go horribly wrong, but my fears were quickly allayed as the earthy tea-like smell of the roasting pandan wafted through my apartment. This was soon joined by the smell of smoky savoury pork and as the day passed, the aroma grew sweeter and more intense, sending me into a dizzying spell of hunger pangs.
Five hours later, I was rewarded for my patience by a mound of steaming pork with a depth of flavour I wouldn’t have though possible given that it was only seasoned with smoked salt and pandan leaves. I served this with rice and lomi lomi salmon which made for a perfect balance of colours and flavours. While the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, it was a little hard to eat due to all the bone and cartilage, so next time I’m going to try using pork butt.
As I was cleaning up, I noticed there was a lot of caramelized brown goodness at the bottom of the pandan weave. Thinking it was a shame to waste all that fond, I tossed all the leaves into a pot with a few cups of water and cooked it for 20 minutes. The result was a mahogany brown pork stock that was the liquid version of what I’d just eaten. The next day, I tossed the leftover pork in a rice cooker with the stock, rice, tomato, chili peppers, garlic, cumin and cinnamon. It was delicious.
14 pandan (screw pine) leaves
4 lbs pork butt or other well marbled cut of pork cut into large chunks
smoked sea salt
Put the oven rack in the middle position and preheat to 275 degrees F.
Lay down a wide piece of aluminum foil on a roasting pan and assemble a 7 x 7 weave of pandan leaves.
Add the pork and sprinkle generously with smoked salt, turning the pork several times to ensure the pieces are well coated. Fold the ends of the pandan over the pork, continuing the weave to cover the meat. Wrap the foil around the entire bundle, sealing loosely at the top so steam can escape.
Put it in the oven for 4-5 hours or until the pork is fork tender.