Pandan leaf, blue algae and the other ingredients coming soon to a dinner party near you

Eleanor Steafel
Pandan leaf pancakes - www.alamy.com

She can transform the sales of an ingredient with a single post on social media, and now the queen of cookery has hailed a sweet, pungent southeast Asian leaf called pandan as the new ingredient to watch. “I think it’s going to be the new matcha,” Nigella Lawson proclaimed on stage at the Cheltenham Literary Festival on Sunday. Sales of avocado rose by 30 per cent after Lawson lovingly mashed and spread it over a piece of toast in her last TV series, so presumably by Friday night half the country will be serving up lurid green pandan crème brulée to unsuspecting dinner party guests. “I don’t know where it is in this country yet,” she added. “But I notice more and more people in America baking with pandan essence, which comes from that leaf.”

It isn’t yet available in Waitrose, begging the question: does a trend truly exist until it appears in everyone’s favourite middle class supermarket? But the leaf can be found at any good oriental food store. 

Also known as screw pine, pandan is a herbaceous tropical plant which grows in southeast Asia, where it is used like vanilla to flavour desserts and drinks. It has already made itself known in foodies’ arsenals across the United States, with many chefs using it, as Lawson suggests, like matcha - the finely ground powder made from specially grown and processed green tea leaves - in creams and cakes. But while matcha has a soft, slightly earthy flavour, pandan is more botanical. Food writer Felicity Cloake likens the flavour to “the fresh piney scent of fancy bubble bath... [it’s] like sweet perfumy Badedas. 

Pandan leaf sponge with coconut cream Credit: Alamy

“I first encountered pandan in Singapore a few years ago,” she says. “It pairs particularly well with south-east Asian flavours like coconut and lemongrass, but I love adding it to everything from a classic creme brûlée to rice – for me, it beats vanilla any day.”

But unlike so many of these food fads which appear in a couple of trendy bakeries before being unceremoniously dropped for the next craze, pandan looks as if it has real staying power. Ox Club in Leeds (which featured in the Michelin Guide this year) already has a pandan ice cream on its dessert menu, served with black rice pudding, peanuts, lime and coconut. The Hairy Bikers used it in a recent book in a savoury recipe, deep frying chunks of Asian spiced chicken wrapped in pandan leaves. Meanwhile Ottolenghi, perhaps the most reliable chef for introducing the nation to new ingredients, uses it to delicately infuse a rice pudding.

Leah Hyslop, Food Director of Sainsbury's Magazine, says it's the kind of "aspirational, conversation-starting ingredient" that you can easily imagine making an appearance at dinner parties. "I strongly suspect pandan is becoming popular because it's just so  'Instagrammable'. The paste turns cakes and desserts a striking green, which is like catnip to a generation who love sharing pictures of their food online.

"Saying that, it could easily be an ingredient that, like harissa paste and chorizo before it, slowly works its way into the British kitchen."

Pandan cupcakes Credit: Alamy

You can buy the leaves themselves, blitzing them to a paste with a little water before straining and stirring through batters, custards and creams, or using much like you would a bay leaf to infuse into homemade sauces. Then there’s the essence, which can be used like vanilla or almond. 

And while you’re stocking your pantry with pandan essence, you might as well look ahead to the other ingredients set to become part of our dinner party repertoires this winter.

Purple ube (the new mash)

We have Instagram to thank for a growing obsession with ingredients that create lurid-coloured baked goods. If used in large quantities, pandan would give you a vibrant green sponge or ice cream; purple ube does a similar job, and is becoming the exotic vegetable of choice among Instagrammers.

It is essentially a purple sweet potato, popular in the Philippines, and used mainly in desserts, with many bakeries using it to dye soft serve ice cream and ring doughnuts a startling shade. But if frying doughnuts of a Friday evening isn’t really your bag, why not mash them with a liberal helping of butter, salt and pepper for a new take on mashed potatoes.

Kelp and kombu (the new kale)

Once the preserve of Gwyneth Paltrow devotees, kelp isn’t only used as an ingredient in expensive face masks - it’s popping up on menus, too. Along with fellow sea vegetable kombu, the pair are being substituted for leafy greens like kale and spinach, and are just as virtuous, being rich in iron, calcium and iodine. 

Jun (the new champagne)

If at this point you have run the gamut on variations of gin and tonics, Jun could be your new dinner party aperitif of choice. It is a kind of kombucha (fermented sweetened tea) but is made from a green tea and honey concoction, and is being hailed as a probiotic champagne alternative that is far less alcoholic than the usual bubbly. 

Blue algae (the new latte)

Last year you couldn’t move for turmeric lattes. Thanks to Pret, they are now so ubiquitous that the foodie set had to find something else to funnel our way in place of dastardly coffee.

The nutrient rich and high protein blue powder boasts all kinds of amino acids said to be terribly good for the gut. So if psychedelic-looking drinks are your thing, an after-dinner algae latte could be just the ticket.