Pandan leaves have been used for many years in Asian cuisine, but their popularity is rapidly spreading around the world!
Many of us would be tempted to skip over this ingredient if we see it in a recipe, as pandan leaves are not readily available in most local grocery stores in the United States.
But pandan leaves have a well-deserved space in our kitchen — people who cook with them swear by their delicious flavor and don’t want to be without them. But what if you can’t get hold of pandan leaves?
So, what are the best pandan leaves substitutes? Any ingredient that carries the same flavor profile of grass, vanilla, and nuts with a floral aroma can be used in place of pandan leaves. The best options for sweet dishes are vanilla beans or matcha tea, while pandan extract or celery leaves are a good choice for savory dishes.
Got a recipe that asks for pandan leaves, but you’re struggling to find them? Don’t panic — we have some great substitutes right here that will make sure your recipe still tastes delicious!
Let’s take a look at what pandan leaves are, why they’re so popular, and the best substitutes for pandan leaves (plus how to use them).
What Are Pandan Leaves?
Pandan is a highly fragrant, herbaceous tropical plant that is found in abundance in Southeast Asia.
It has long been a popular ingredient in recipes from this region, and in the Chinese language, the name of the plant translates as “fragrant plant” due to its deliciously sweet aroma.
The bright green leaves of the pandan plant can be used in many different ways. They can be purchased as fresh leaves, which are normally sold whole to preserve their flavor and aroma for as long as possible.
If purchasing fresh pandan leaves, make sure that the leaves have a fresh green color, without any brown discoloration.
They can also be sold as frozen or dried leaves, either whole or cut into pieces. The flavor and aroma are not quite so intense in this form, but the leaves can be stored for much longer.
One of the reasons for the popularity of pandan leaves is that they are relatively inexpensive compared to some other flavorings, such as lemongrass or vanilla bean.
They also have a unique and interesting flavor that can be used in a variety of different ways. The flavor of pandan leaves is intense and goes a long way, giving this ingredient even better value for money.
What Do Pandan Leaves Taste Like?
Pandan leaves have a complex and delicate flavor that perfectly complements many varying types of cuisines.
The complex flavor profile means that they have a place in both sweet and savory dishes.
While pandan leaves are traditional throughout Asian cuisine, they have a place in recipes from all around the world.
The flavor of pandan leaves is strong, and the initial taste is grassy. Under this is a complex blend of vanilla, almond, and rose, with an underlying hint of coconut.
Interestingly, pandan leaves share many flavors in common with basmati rice. This means it can be used to flavor plain rice, giving a cheaper method of creating full-flavored, aromatic rice.
The flavor of pandan leaves works well with other aromatic herbs and spices, both sweet and savory. This means that they are incredibly versatile and can be used in several different ways.
What Are Pandan Leaves Used For?
Pandan leaves can be used whole, or they can be sliced, chopped, or ground into a paste.
They are utilized as much for their aroma as their flavor, lending a delightfully floral fragrance to Southeast Asian dishes.
Whole pandan leaves can also be used as wrappings for fillings such as chicken and sticky rice.
Pandan leaves can withstand being steamed or fried, although their thin width can make them tricky to wrap effectively. When used in this way, the leaves add their aromatic flavor to the filling while they cook.
Dried pandan leaves can either be rehydrated with water or ground into a powder. Their flavor is not quite as intense as fresh pandan leaves, so you may need to double or triple the amount used.
The same applies to frozen pandan leaves, which will need to be thawed, rinsed, and dried before use.
Whole pandan leaves are also commonly ground into a paste, with a tiny amount of water added. This adds a green hue to the dish, as well as an incredibly intense flavor.
Dried powdered pandan leaves can also be added to baked dishes and hot drinks.
The aromatic flavor of pandan leaves means that they pair perfectly with both sweet and savory ingredients.
They are popular in coconut-based dishes and are the secret ingredient to the floral fragrance we are familiar with in Thai cuisine.
Best Substitutes For Pandan Leaves
So now we’ve got you all excited about pandan leaves, we need to turn our thoughts to what you can use as a substitute for these aromatic green leaves when they aren’t available.
There are plenty of options available, so don’t be disheartened if your local store doesn’t stock pandan leaves!
Without further ado, here are the best substitutes for pandan leaves.
1. Matcha Tea
Now our top pick for the best pandan leaf substitute might not seem like an obvious choice, but it really is the closest substitution in terms of flavor!
Matcha is a type of green tea made by drying and then powdering the highest-quality tea leaves. These are grown in the shade to give them an intense flavor and deep green color.
Matcha tea is normally made by whisking the powder into hot water, but you can use the powder as a direct substitution for ground pandan leaves — it will give the same brilliant green color, and the two have many flavors in common.
Both pandan leaves and matcha tea powder have a grassy flavor and floral aroma and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.
There are a few things to be aware of when using matcha as a substitute for pandan leaves.
Firstly, matcha does contain moderate amounts of caffeine, and it can be slightly more bitter than pandan leaves.
We’d suggest halving the amount of matcha tea powder used, then consider adding extra sweetness in the form of sugar or honey.
2. Celery Leaves
The joy of using celery leaves as a substitute for pandan leaves is that they are normally widely available — you should be able to pick up some from your local store without any problems.
Celery has a similar grassy flavor to pandan leaves, but without the sweetness. They are best used as a substitute in recipes that call for chopped or shredded fresh or frozen pandan leaves.
We’d suggest reducing the quantity by around a third, as the flavor of celery leaves can be quite intense.
Another great thing about celery leaves is that they add a lovely green color to your recipe, and they also have a hint of spiciness.
Celery leaves will work well as a replacement for pandan leaves in savory dishes. However, they would not be a good substitute for sweet dishes and desserts that ask for pandan leaves.
3. Pandanus Extract
If you struggle to find fresh or frozen pandan leaves, then a bottle of pandanus extract is a worthwhile purchase.
This is a very intense form of pandan leaf, and you may also find it sold as pandan essence. It is the ideal substitution for pandan leaves when you want an ingredient that is as close as possible in terms of flavor.
A good quality pandanus extract is made by steeping fresh or frozen pandan leaves in hot water. This draws out the incredibly intense flavor and color, and the liquid is reduced to make it even more concentrated.
There are also cheaper pandan essences available on the market, but these are often made from artificial chemical flavorings.
Pandanas essence has a vivid green color, and it is so concentrated that just a couple of drops is normally sufficient to give your dish the unmistakable flavor of pandan leaves.
It is shelf-stable and can be stored at room temperature, meaning you don’t have to go to the trouble of tracking down fresh pandan leaves every time you want a burst of this grassy, floral flavor.
4. Vanilla Beans
If you’re looking for a replacement for pandan leaves in a sweet dish, dessert, or smoothie, then vanilla beans are a great option.
Vanilla beans can also be used in some savory dishes, as they have the taste of vanilla without the excessive sweetness that we are accustomed to in vanilla-based desserts.
They can be added to curries and can also be used to flavor steamed and baked rice dishes.
Bear in mind that vanilla beans are slightly sweeter than pandan leaves, so don’t be tempted to add any extra sugar.
The vanilla flavor is also far more intense than you would get from pandan leaves, so you will need to reduce the amount used considerably.
And, in a pinch, you can use your trusty old vanilla extract if vanilla bean pods are not available in your area.
5. Banana Leaves
If you want to make a dish that asks for pandan leaves to be used as a wrapping for other ingredients, then banana leaves can also work well!
Banana leaves are not as pungent in terms of flavor, but they will impart some savory taste notes to the filling when they are steamed or fried.
The flavor of banana leaves is more earthy than pandan leaves, and this flavor tends to be more prominent with a hint of underlying grassiness.
You may be able to find fresh banana leaves in your local Asian food store, and they are also available frozen.
Banana leaves are easy to use as wrapping, although their large size means they are more cumbersome than smaller pandan leaves.
However, this does mean you can fit an individual portion of fish or vegetables inside one leaf, making them a fun and novel way to serve up food at a dinner party!
One of the key flavors in Asian cooking is cilantro, and this pungent herb is now widely used in many countries around the world.
Fresh cilantro will give you the same grassy flavor notes as pandan leaves, with added pepperiness. This is a great substitute for savory recipes, but would not work well in sweet dishes.
We would suggest that you reduce the amount of fresh cilantro by half due to the pungent flavor.
If you only have dried cilantro seeds, these can add an earthy note to your dish, but will not have the same grassy flavor as fresh cilantro.
7. Collard Greens
Pandan leaves can be substituted with collard greens to give the same texture and greenness to your recipe. This is a good substitution when the vivid green color of fresh pandan leaves is vital to the appearance of the recipe.
Collard greens have an earthy flavor with a hint of grassiness, but without the floral, aromatic flavor of pandan leaves.
They don’t have the same complexity of taste as pandan leaves, but are an acceptable substitution if you’re making a broth that calls for freshly shredded pandan leaves. You might need to add in some extra spices to deepen the flavor.
If you choose to pop some collard greens in your dish, remember to cut out the thick, dense stem first.
It is a good idea to lightly blanch the shredded collard greens in a small amount of salted water before using them as a replacement for pandan leaves.
8. Fresh Ginger
Ginger can be used to bring some of the same flavor notes as pandan leaves to your dish, but this substitution must be used with care.
Fresh ginger has an intensely spicy flavor that is not found in pandan leaves, but both ingredients have a peppery note.
So, if you can mellow the ginger by pickling it in vinegar or cooking it slowly, you can use it to add a complex, aromatic flavor to your dish.
Just take care not to burn the ginger, as this will bring an unpleasant bitterness to the whole dish!
You will only need a small amount of fresh ginger to replace pandan leaves, as this root is packed full of intense flavor.
9. Grape Leaves
Grape leaves are another great substitution if you want to try a recipe where pandan leaves are used to wrap around a filling.
If you live in an area where grapes grow in abundance, you may even be able to pick the straight off the vine! If not, they can be found in many grocery stores, normally preserved in brine.
In some cultures, grape leaves are frequently used as a culinary ingredient, such as traditional Greek dolmas or Lebanese warak enab.
Grape leaves have a mild, tangy flavor that is both earthy and grassy. They are less intensely flavored than pandan leaves, but are tough enough to withstand being wrapped around a variety of different fillings.
If you are using fresh grape leaves, it is advisable to leave them to wilt for a day or two or blanch them in hot water first. This makes them more malleable and you will find that they hold their shape easily without tearing.