Pandan, an Asian Herb, Leaps From Cakes to Cocktails
Pandan, a tropical herb, is a versatile thing. In its native Southeast Asia — where it is prized for an unusual aroma that is compared variously to nuts, rice and popcorn — it is used in desserts, sweets and some savory dishes.
Half a world away, however, it has become a hot ingredient at French cocktail bars.
That culinary and geographical leap can largely be credited to Nico de Soto, a globe-trotting bartender and an owner of Mace in New York and Danico in Paris. “I discovered pandan while traveling in Indonesia for two months in 2008,” he said. “They use it a lot to perfume the rice, or in various cakes and candies, the same way we use vanilla, I would say.”
Mr. de Soto started using it for an event in 2010 in London, then on the menu at the Experimental Cocktail Club on the Lower East Side. A pandan cocktail has been on every menu at Danico since it opened last year, and at Mace.
“Some people can’t put out a menu without ginger or mint,” Mr. de Soto said. “I’m the pandan guy.”
Today, you can find pandan cocktails at several Parisian cocktail bars. At Mabel, the Electric Crusta contains Calvados infused with Szechuan buttons, pandan syrup, bergamot Curaçao, blood-orange juice and bitters. At Sherry Butt, the Ronin uses Madeira that has been infused with pandan. At Dirty Dick, the Asian Persuasion includes the bitter aperitif Suze infused with black lemon, along with pandan syrup, passion fruit and pineapple rum.
Bartenders are eager to credit Mr. de Soto as their inspiration. “If somebody out here is known for being the spokesperson for pandan, it is definitely Nicolas,” said Joseph Akhavan, a founder of Mabel. “He has been obsessed with pandan for so long now.”
Pandan lends a pretty green tint to many drinks. But it is the lingering, nutty flavor that bewitches bartenders and drinkers. “It has an unexpected finish that makes you want to go for another sip,” Mr. Akhavan said.
That taste makes it well suited for tiki drinks, said Scott Schuder, an owner of Dirty Dick, noting that it added a “unique hazelnut, rice, coconut flavor.”
Pandan is found in bars outside Paris as well, including Bordeaux and Lyon. When Simon Chollet, who worked at Sherry Butt, opened Symbiose in Bordeaux in 2015, he took pandan with him. Mr. Chollet noted the ingredient’s many advantages: It is simple to work with, inexpensive and easy to acquire. “You can find it in France in almost every Asian shop,” he said.
The leaf also helped the bar introduce wary Bordeaux patrons to the potential delights of the modern cocktail. “It was for us the perfect way to explain to our first customer that drinking cocktails is more than just a trendy thing,” Mr. Chollet said. “It is an experience of taste and a way to discover other continents and cultures.”
Some bartenders predict that 2017 will be an even bigger year for pandan. Pandan cocktails can now be found at Slowly Shirley in Manhattan and 71 Above in Los Angeles.
“Now people tag me everywhere in the world when they use pandan,” Mr. de Soto said. “It’s pretty funny: Paris, Hamburg, Montreal, New York or Sydney. I should have bought shares in a plantation in the Philippines.”
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