Definition: Pandan (Scientific Name: Pandanus, also known as screw pine or palm pine) is a herbaceous tropical plant that grows in Southeast-Asia (see second photo below for a visual). In Chinese it is known as 'fragrant plant' because of its unique, sweet aroma. The cultivated plant features upright bright green leaves, and it's the leaves that are desired for cooking up many Thai and Southeast-Asian dishes.
In Southeast Asia, pandan leaves are used to lend a unique taste and aroma to some savory dishes, but mainly it is used to flavor desserts and some drinks. Pandan leaves have a naturally sweet taste and soft aroma. After tasting it once, you will never forget the flavor. Pandan leaves can also be used to wrap savory foods, such as chicken or sticky rice (see second photo).
Cooking with Pandan Versus Banana Leaf: Pandan leaves are much thinner in width compared to broad banana leaves. If you're planning to steam or make wrapped 'packets' of food with the leaf as a kind of container to hold the juices, you will want to go with banana leaf. Pandan can be used to wrap foods, but the juices will likely seep through. In Thai cooking, pandan is often used to wrap chicken which is then deep-fried, as in the following:
Example in Cooking: A unique Thai savory dish made with pandan leaf is: Pandan Wrapped Chicken.
And here's a Thai dessert made with pandan paste: Sticky Rice Balls with Pandan.
Where to Buy Pandan Leaves? Pandan leaves can be purchased fresh or frozen at some Asian food stores. If you can't find them, they can be ordered online: Pandan Leaves Online.
Pandan Paste: Pandan is also made into a paste that is used in cakes and desserts, much the way we use vanilla flavoring in the West.
However, in addition to flavor, pandan paste also imbues foods with a bright green color which is not all natural (food coloring is usually added). It can be purchased as a ready-to-use paste in Asian specialty stores (see: Pandan Paste online).
If you would like to make your own pandan flavoring, fresh, pandan leaves should be pounded into a paste, removing the fibrous pieces and adding water sparingly. Note: for this you will need a good pestle & mortar, for example, one made of granite for heavy pounding.
Pandan Desserts: Here are some desserts made with pandan paste:
If what you are cooking requires complete wrapping, so that the juices do not escape, see my article on cooking with banana leaves: How to Cook with Banana Leaf.