Pandanus Leaf – Bai Dteuy
by Kasma Loha-unchit
See also Kasma's information on Galanga (Kah).
Pandanus Leaf (Dteuy Hom or Bai Dteuy, usually labeled "Bai Toey"), a type of pandanus, grows profusely in Thailand. The shiny pleated leaves – long and slender like those of day lilies – are sold along with bunches of orchids for use in floral arrangements, but more importantly, they are the source of a well-loved flavoring that goes into a wide assortment of desserts and sweet treats. The juice extracted from the fresh leaves provides a natural green food coloring as well. Many of the prepackaged green sweetmeats you find in Southeast Asian markets are scented with bai dteuy essence, although most of them are tinted with artificial food coloring since the fresh leaves are not always available.
Bai dteuy has an earthy fragrance and taste that enrich coconut milk and syrupy mixtures in the making of sweet foods. A Thai equivalent to vanilla, bai dteuy is one of the most popular flavorings for coconut desserts, second only to the sweet essence of mali blossoms (jasmine). Country folk use the leaves to boil with water for drinking purposes, adding a refreshing, almost smoky taste, reminiscent of the juice of roasted coconuts. A few bai dteuy leaves frequently find their way into the rice pot as well, to give the rice a lovely fragrance. They are also used to wrap food for cooking, such as gai haw bai dteuy ("chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves"), and are neatly folded into small baskets for filling with puddings and cakes.
Besides its culinary value, bai dteuy is an herb known for its healing properties. It has a cooling effect and is excellent for the treatment of internal inflammations, urinary infections, colds, coughs, measles, bleeding gums and skin diseases.
Look for fresh pandanus leaves in Southeast Asian markets; they are flown in from Hawaii and are available on a sporadic basis. You need only two to three whole leaves to flavor a couple of cups of coconut milk. Simmer ten to fifteen minutes, or until the milk is richly flavored. Squeeze all the juice out from the leaves before discarding; these last drops are the most fragrant. If you are not able to find the fresh leaves, look for frozen ones carried by Thai markets. Frequently, the imported leaves from Thailand (labeled sometimes as "pandan" or "pandal") are even more fragrant than the fresh Hawaiian ones. Use the dried cut leaves only as a last resort, or substitute with a few drops of the green essence sold in little bottles identified as "bai toey."
Our Ingredients Index contains links to many more Thai ingredients.