Bangkok Post - - CORNUCOPIA - By Suthon Sukphisit

For desserts and other food to taste great, it’s not only about the flavour. The smell is an­other im­por­tant fac­tor in mak­ing food all the more tasty. A lot of Thai food re­lies on smell, which mostly comes from leaves. Try imag­in­ing Thai food with­out kaf­fir lime leaves, basil, tamarind leaves or cha-om leaves. Now what would ev­ery­thing taste like?

Se­lect­ing and us­ing leaves in cook­ing in­volves long-held lo­cal wis­dom. Peo­ple know what leaves to use in what dishes, how much they should use, and even dur­ing which steps they should add these leaves to cre­ate the per­fect bal­ance.

This time, it’s about the pan­dan leaf — an or­di­nary leaf with quite a large role. It’s quite a sim­ple plant in that it grows nat­u­rally un­der favourable con­di­tions. In the past, gar­den­ing in the cen­tral part of the coun­try would see a mix­ture of plants grow­ing to- gether. There are tow­er­ing trees, fruit trees and veg­etable patches. The ground would have ditches to keep wa­ter for the plants. On the edge, pan­dan of­ten grows in a bush. It helps to pre­vent the edge from collapsing and it also helps to re­tain the qual­ity of wa­ter. A pan­dan bush is also home to small crea­tures such as snails and frogs, though they also need shade from big trees. Aside from be­ing a part of food and dessert, pan­dan can be tied to­gether with other flow­ers and used as an of­fer­ing for monks.

Pan­dan brought ex­tra in­come for farm­ers in the past (when trees and fruits were their main source of in­come). It’s some­thing one doesn’t have to plant, care for, or put any fer­tiliser on, nor does it re­quire the use of pes­ti­cide. To cut out these leaves for sale, peo­ple would cut the lower leaves and let the up­per ones grow, then they would cut those later, too.

A nor­mal price to­day sees pan­dan be­ing sold for 30 baht/kg straight from the plan­ta­tion. Each sale would de­pend on the or­der of those who sell it at whole­sale mar­kets. Those plac­ing an or­der would know which plan­ta­tions still have pan­dan. It makes for an ex­tra in­come that re­quires no in­vest­ment. But that’s re­served for an old type of plan­ta­tion and gar­den only.

Many mod­ern plan­ta­tions would fo­cus on a sin­gle type of plant such as dragon fruit, orange or guava. So, there’d be no chance of get­ting pan­dan as a by-prod­uct.

As for its ben­e­fits, pan­dan has an aroma that many be­lieve to be good. Isan peo­ple sell­ing food in Bangkok like to add pan­dan leaves when they steam sticky rice. For boiled rice eater­ies, they may add pan­dan leaves into their pot of boiled rice. Some stick it in­side a fish be­fore they steam or grill it.

Famous Thai desserts in­clude black co­conut pud­ding, with grated co­conut as top­ping. In­gre­di­ents are flour, co­conut milk, sugar and lime­wa­ter. Its black colour is taken from burnt co­conut shell mixed with wa­ter. Once fil­tered, it can be mixed with other things to cre­ate black sweets.

Some also use pan­dan in­stead by blend­ing the leaves to­gether. Once fil­tered and mixed, it can be used to make green, aro­matic pud­ding. Some pre­fer this pan­dan pud­ding over black co­conut.

Thai iced desserts may have fruit pre­serves topped with shaved ice and syrup. In mak­ing this syrup, some would add pan­dan for aroma.

For tago, the two-tier co­conut jelly, flour and sugar are boiled with corn, taro and co­conut. The top tier is salty, com­prised of flour, co­conut milk, salt and sugar.

Tago is of­ten served in a small cup made from leaves. The sweet is at the bot­tom, and the salty goes on top. There are two types of krathong, or cups. The round one is made from ba­nana leaf; the rec­tan­gu­lar one, from pan­dan leaf. Mak­ing a pan­dan krathong is very sim­ple. The leaf only needs to be split into a square of de­sir­able size. Tago served in pan­dan krathong looks de­light­ful, and so peo­ple of­ten serve it this way.

Pan­dan leaves can also be com­bined with other flow­ers, such as orchid, marigold and rose, that peo­ple usu­ally buy and of­fer to monks. These flow­ers are very pop­u­lar on Bud­dhist holy days. Be­fore holy days, an or­der from the whole­sale mar­ket will be sent to farm­ers.

Pan­dan is also pop­u­lar among taxi driv­ers. Taxis gen­er­ally smell musty, so the driver will put pan­dan leaves be­hind the back seat so that the smell of pan­dan will over­power the musti­ness.

Pan­dan is a plant with many uses. If we were to give an award to a plant with ex­cel­lent prop­er­ties, pan­dan would def­i­nitely take home the crown.

Isan cooks in Bangkok add pan­dan leaves when steam­ing sticky rice. Some put it in­side a fish be­fore cook­ing

Pan­dan leaves.

Sangkaya, or Thai pan­dan cus­tard over bread.

Co­conut pud­ding.

Tago, or co­conut jelly wrapped in pan­dan cup.

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