Vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive food products to produce on earth. The flowers are pollinated by hand. The pods are harvested, soaked, wrapped, put into boxes to steam, and then laid out on mats in the sun for one hour each day for months. Because of this, they have never been cheap.

After people began demanding natural ingredients in their foods, large companies like Nestle and Hershey’s switched from using the lesser vanillin to real vanilla in their products, and vanilla prices surged.

Madagascar produces about 80 percent of the world’s vanilla. When a cyclone hit Madagascar this past March, it destroyed about a third of the crop. Vanilla prices reached an all-time high. In 2014, the price for vanilla was around $60 per kilogram. In 2017, the price was around $400 per kilogram.

Chefs and manufacturers are accustomed to price fluctuations. But when one of your primary ingredients jumps in price that much, you are faced with some big decisions—switch to vanillin or natural vanilla flavor, take the hit, pass the cost onto your customers, or get creative.

Many chefs are getting creative with pandan as vanilla prices spike.


Pictured here: Pandan

What Is Pandan?

Pandan a.k.a “screwpine” is a tropical plant that grows in Southeast-Asia. It has bright green leaves, a soft aroma, and imparts a sweet, delicate taste to sweet and savory dishes. Pandan’s flavor is difficult to define but can be described as floral with citrus and pine undertones.

It’s often said that pandan is to Asia what vanilla is to the Western world. Though it does not taste like vanilla, it can be used in similar applications. You can find pandan leaves in the frozen section or as an extract or paste in Asian grocery stores and online.

How to Cook with Pandan

Pandan leaves can be pounded into a paste or wrapped around foods. Like vanilla beans, they can also be used to infuse flavor into liquids. Try using pandan leaves to make:

  • Crème brûlée and ice cream. Add leaves to the dairy or plant-based milk and let sit overnight.
  • Sweet sticky rice. Wrap cooked rice with leaves to infuse with flavor.
  • Cocktails. Try infusing simple syrup with leaves and then use in a cocktail. We like this recipe for Pandan Fashioned Cocktail from Union Bar.

Pandan extract and pastes can be used to flavor any baked good. Some pastes have a green color, so they will also color whatever you use it in. Use pandan extract or paste as you would vanilla to make cakes, cookies, and pastries.

Asian cuisine is a big deal the last few years, and while people have been using pandan to flavor dishes in Asia for a long time, it’s a new frontier here in the U.S. We look forward to seeing what chefs come up with!

Read more about what’s coming up in the culinary world with the latest in FDR Food & Beverage Trends!