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Annapurna Leaves And The “Vanilla Of The East”

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From being a dye in the Southeast to a crucial scent in Lucknawi and Bengali Mughlai cuisine, the Screwpine tree, better known as the Pandan in Southeast Asia, has been an integral part of the cuisine of various Asian countries – and the flower produces the popular Kewra Jal in India.

Years ago, Masterchef Australia introduced me to Pandan leaves. After that, in my travels through cities in Southeast Asia, I realized that the Pandan is the backbone of the region’s extremely limited dessert menu. As well as being a natural dye that turns everything into original green, Pandan is also fragrant, milky, creamy, and floral. The scent of Pandan is one of the most dominant, along with mango, in the region. In the final season of Masterchef, I watched Poh Ling Yeow scramble the most insanely delicate Malaysian and Indonesian lace pancakes with Pandan juice, making them a light neon green, stuffed with a shredded duck Rendang, j decided I needed to explore Pandan more.

Cut two weeks back. I had cooked some Biryanis and a sumptuous Chicken Chaanp in the same week, and was engaged in a long conversation with my uncle about the irreplaceability of Kewra Jal. Kewra Jal or essence is a common scent widely used in Awadhi and Lucknawi and Bengali Mughlai dishes. It comes in thin, long-necked bottles, is a colorless and tasteless liquid, has a scent that has notes of rose, but also warm cream, a spring orchard and deep, ancient notes of forests. It can be very difficult to describe the scent of Kewra Jal, but her absence can be salient at first. Although Bengali Biryani or Chaanp requires other heavy weights like saffron, meetha ittar, rose water, and ghee, and is made up of strong spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and clove, the Kewra Jal ties them all together, balancing them all. I’ve had enough Biryani without him to know how indispensable he is.

This conversation suddenly made me want to research Kewra Jal one afternoon. Where does it come from? It was then that I discovered the Screwpine or Pandanus tree. It grows in southern Asia. Kewra Jal is produced from the distillation of the essence of Screwpine flowers. I wonder what Kewra ittar would look like. Then, as if I stumbled 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 cooking while the other in tariffs from Southeast Asia. Finding relationships like this, where cultures are brought together by ingredients and techniques, is how we can slow down the return to the shared history of this planet without walls or borders.

In northern India, Pandan leaves are called Annapurna leaves because the scent leaves are used to scent kheer and pulaos. The goddess Annapurna, a deity of the harvest, is believed to be an extraordinary chef, owns a bottomless cauldron, and cooks the most fragrant dishes. I guess its quality gives the tree its name. It will also be interesting to note that in northern India the only flavorful rice grape is Basmati, and therefore kheers and pulaos that cannot be made with Basmati will obviously need a support. The Orient has a range of varieties of fragrant sun-cooked rice, especially Gobindobhog and Lokkhibhog, which are used for pulaos, khichdis and kheers. In parts of West Bengal and Odisha, for additional support, Annapurna leaves are used in kheers and therefore are called Payesh Paata (Kheer leaves). Other research has shown that in Bangladesh these leaves are called Polao Paata (Pulav leaves). The whole leaves are added to the pulaos and biryanis and removed before serving. A similar use of the whole leaf as an ingredient is bay leaf (Tej patta) and curry leaves, although both are used more as spices in Indian cuisine. Unlike bay leaf, Annapurna leaves are used fresh and not dehydrated.

In the West, Pandan’s growing popularity over the past two decades, has lent it the title of “Vanilla of the Orient”. A few years ago Nigella Lawson, the dean herself, called Pandan the “new Matcha”. In Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan (called Takonoki in Japan), Pandan is used both as a wrapper for steaming food, as an ingredient with salty protein, and in desserts. In Sri Lanka, Pandan leaves and Screwpine fruit are commonly used in most meat and seafood dishes. It is much more widespread and common in these countries than in India. Here, most people may have heard of Kewra Jal but may not be familiar with its not-so-distant iterations. Most of Kewra’s water production in India comes from Ganjam, Chhatrapur, Chikiti and surrounding districts of Odisha, making it the region’s most important source of income.

So many countries, so many techniques, so many culinary traditions, so many uses – one tree.

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