From being a colouring agent in the South-East, to being a crucial fragrance in Lucknawi and Bengali Mughlai cuisine, the Screwpine tree, better known as Pandan in South-East Asia, has been an integral part of various Asian countries’ cuisines – and the flower produces the popular Kewra Jal in India.
Years back, Masterchef Australia introduced me to Pandan leaves. After that, in my travels through South-East Asian cities, I realised that the Pandan is the backbone of the region’s extremely limited dessert menu. Along with being a natural dye that turns anything a quirky green, the Pandan is also sweet-smelling, milky, creamy, and floral. The fragrance of Pandan is one of the most dominant ones, along with mango, in the region. In the latest season of Masterchef, I watched Poh Ling Yeow rustle up the most amazingly delicate Malaysian and Indonesian lace crepes with Pandan juice, making them a light neon green, stuffed with a shredded duck Rendang, I decided that I must explore Pandan more.
Cut to two weeks back. I had cooked a few Biryanis and a lavish Chicken Chaanp in the same week, and was engaged in a lengthy conversation with my uncle about the irreplaceability of Kewra Jal. Kewra Jal or essence is a common fragrance used extensively in Awadhi and Lucknawi and Bengali Mughlai dishes. It comes in slim, long-necked bottles, is a colourless and tasteless liquid, has a fragrance that has hints of rose, but also warm cream, a springtime orchard, and deep, ancient notes of forests. It can be very difficult to describe the fragrance of Kewra Jal, but its absence can be startingly salient. Although the Bengali Biryani or the Chaanp requires other olfactory heavyweights like saffron, meetha ittar, rose water, and ghee, and comprises of strong spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and clove, the Kewra Jal binds them altogether, balancing all of them out. I have had enough Biryani without it to know how indispensable it is.
That conversation suddenly made me want to research on the Kewra Jal one afternoon. Where does it come from? That is when I came to know about the Screwpine or Pandanus tree. It grows around southern Asia. Kewra Jal is produced from distilling the essence of the Screwpine flowers. I wonder what Kewra ittar would be like. Then, like tumbling upon a long lost relative, I connected the dots between the Kewra Jal and the Pandan – both from the same tree, but one used in Mughlai cuisine while the other in south-east Asian fares. To find relationships like this, where cultures are brought together by ingredients and techniques, is how we can slow walk back to this planet’s shared history, sans walls and boundaries.
In the north of India, Pandan leaves are referred to as Annapurna leaves, as the fragrant leaves are used to perfume kheer and pulaos. The Goddess Annapurna, a harvest deity, is believed to be a chef extraordinaire, have a bottomless cauldron, and cook the most fragrant of dishes. I am guessing that quality of hers renders the tree its name. It will also be interesting to note that, in northern India, the only fragrant rice varietal is the Basmati, and hence, kheers and pulaos that cannot be made with the Basmati, will evidently need some support. The East has a spread of sun-baked fragrant rice varieties, most importantly the Gobindobhog and Lokkhibhog, which are used for pulaos, khichdis, and kheers. In some parts of West Bengal and Odisha, for added support, Annapurna leaves are used in kheers and hence, are called Payesh Paata (Kheer leaves). Further research brought up that in Bangladesh, these leaves are called Polao Paata (Pulav leaves). The whole leaves are added to pulaos and biryanis, and removed before serving. A similar usage of whole leaf as an ingredient is the Bay leaf (Tej patta) and curry leaves, although both are used more as spices in Indian cooking. Unlike the Bay leaf, Annapurna leaves are used fresh, and not dehydrated.
In the West, Pandan’s growing popularity in the last two decades, has lent it the title of “Vanilla of the East”. A few years back, Nigella Lawson, the doyenne herself, referred to Pandan as the “new Matcha”. In Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan (called Takonoki in Japan), Pandan is used both as a wrap to steam food in, as an ingredient with savoury proteins, and in desserts. In Sri Lanka, Pandan leaves and the Screwpine fruit are commonly used in most meat and seafood dishes. It is much more prevalent and common in those countries than in India. Here, most people might have heard of Kewra Jal but might not know its not-so-distant iterations. Most of India’s production of Kewra water is collected from the Ganjam, Chhatrapur, Chikiti and surrounding districts of Odisha, making it the region’s most important source of revenue.
So many countries, so many techniques, so many culinary traditions, so many uses – one tree.