I've read in a few places that Pandan is to Asia what Vanilla is to the Western world. Since I've never worked with Pandan in the kitchen before, I was a bit confused by this analogy and assumed that there was a less-than-mediocre, one-hit-wonder, wannabe rap artist by the name of "Pandan Ice" running around Asia.
Shay with a gauge and Pandan with a nine.
Turns out I was wrong. Which is a good thing. One Vanilla Ice is more than the world can stand.
Anyhoo, the Pandan/Vanilla comparison actually pertains to the wide use of Pandan in a variety of Southeast Asian dishes. Like vanilla pods, the long green leaves of the Pandan (AKA Screwpine) plant are very fragrant and aromatic. Also similar to vanilla, the unique aroma of pandan leaves is used to flavor many sweets. In the Philippines for example, Pandan is usually paired with coconut in desserts like Buko Pandan salad--a sweet mixture of pandan-perfumed milk, gelatin, and coconut.
However, it should also be noted that Pandan tastes nothing like vanilla. Some say that the aroma and flavor of Pandan is similar to that of coconuts--which is strange considering that the two ingredients are usually paired together. To me though, the flavor of Pandan is wholly unique but tastes kinda banana leafy, sorta grassy, a little bit nutty, and a lot like Jasmine rice--all at the same time. Despite my best efforts at pinning down a flavor description, the taste of Pandan is almost indescribable.
But don't let Pandan's uniqueness discourage you from using it your cooking. Even though it tastes and smells nothing like vanilla, I used some Pandan leaves in much the same way I would use vanilla pods. I steeped the leaves in some warm milk and cream to extract the wonderful Pandan fragrance and flavor--instead of plain ol' vanilla ice cream, I made Pandan ice cream.