Culinary classics reimagined with flowers, including a pad Thai crowned with orchids, a lily, a tulip and baby’s breath.Credit…Photograph by Esther Choi. Food styling by Young Gun Lee. Prop styling by Leilin Lopez-Toledo
IN 1845, NEARLY a year into a punishing 3,000-mile trek through the Australian interior (then still terra incognita to outsiders), the Prussian naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt attempted to eat the fruit of Pandanus spiralis, a tree that huddled at the edges of watering holes. Pandanus is a genus of tropical evergreens that grow in Southeast and South Asia, Oceania and Africa, with leaves that tend to rise and arch in a whorl around the stem and bulbous fruit, whose polyp-like knobs evoke a pineapple’s armor — hence the English name, screw pine. For Leichhardt, initial results were poor: the “rich, mellow pear-like” flesh of the fruit, he wrote, proved to be “hot, and made our lips and tongues very sore.” (Stomach trouble ensued.) Snooping around the remains of campfires abandoned by locals, he deduced that the fruit had to be buried in hot ash, then soaked and roasted before it could be considered edible.
Leichhardt disappeared two and a half years later, at age 34, trying to cross the continent, and his experiment in eating Pandanus failed to earn it a spot in the Western canon of cuisine. And yet the genus has given us one of the world’s most distinct, if elusive, flavors, via Pandanus amaryllifolius, commonly known in the West as pandan, from the proto-Malayo-Polynesian language. A cousin to the Australian native that Leichhardt encountered, pandan has long been cultivated in Southeast Asia but never been found spontaneously occurring, without human intervention, in the wild. Botanists hypothesize that the plant originated in the Maluku archipelago of Indonesia, which was once the exclusive province of the world’s most prized spices — clove, nutmeg, mace — for which wars were fought and thousands massacred. Although sponge cakes suffused with pandan may be found in cafes in the Netherlands today, the Dutch colonists who commandeered Indonesia’s bounty apparently did not deem it economically beneficial to exploit the plant. Its appeal is more subtle than the bronze warmth of those Maluku spices, resting in its slightly stiff, narrow leaves that end in sharp tips. Immaculate on the stem, they offer no scent, but gently crush them and their fragrance is released.
The leaves aren’t meant to be eaten directly. Fan them across the bottom of a steamer basket or baking tray; fold them and make a swaddle for meat before roasting; knot them together and submerge in water, coconut milk or a pot of soaking rice, then simmer; or pulverize them and squeeze out the liquid, which brings a sunny green to puto (steamed rice cakes) in the Philippines and, in Indonesia and Malaysia, to velvety kaya (coconut jam) and the snaky little jellies in cendol, an iced dessert. Once leached of their life force, the leaves are discarded, and what they leave behind is a flavor often described as floral, delicate yet pronounced and almost impossible to explain to those who’ve never tried it. In the West, it has been likened to vanilla but also hazelnut, grass, rose, citrus and pine, although it’s unclear if it actually tastes like any of those ingredients or simply takes on such notes in proximity, chameleonic — or if it is technically a flavor at all, and not pure scent and evocation: of place; of other flavors, other times; of something inchoate and ghostly that disappears before it can be named.
PART OF THE confusion is a matter of terms. The ancients grappled with how to categorize the sensations that come to us through food. As the classicist John Paulas outlines in his 2017 essay “Tastes of the Extraordinary: Flavor Lists in Imperial Rome,” the Greek philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias, around the turn of the third century A.D., drew an Aristotelian axis with sweet at one end and bitter on the other, with six mixed flavors (oily, pungent, tannic, tart, sour, briny) making up the gradations in between, while the Roman naturalist and historian Pliny the Elder, in the first century A.D., proposed 10 standard flavors (with the notable additions of fresh and mild) and three paradoxes: the flavor that is perceived as singular when it is in fact a crowd of flavors conspiring at once, with wine as the exemplar; the flavor that does not fit any category and is sui generis to a particular food, like the “prevailing blandness” of milk; and the flavor that is the very absence of flavor, nullus, as in water. With this last philosophical gambit, “Pliny drops his audience into an abyss,” Paulas writes, “for the sake of sheer wonder.”
This article continues below…