I’M TOLD I don’t drink enough water. I bet you are, too; this is a near-constant refrain from our doctors, physical trainers and TikTok influencers. There is an easy solution to this: Drink more water. But if it were that simple, there wouldn’t be so many apps designed to help us do it.
When you’re parched, water tastes like the nectar of the gods. But as you consume it and become more and more hydrated, it becomes increasingly difficult to induce your body to intake the roughly 8 bajillion ounces of plain, flavorless water a person supposedly needs to maintain eternal youth and beauty. So I would like to humbly suggest a helpful solution that’s easier to create than an app, healthier than a sports drink and less iffy than drinking huge quantities of small beer like a medieval person: pandan water.
Pandan is sometimes referred to as “the vanilla of Asia,” but you would never confuse the two side by side. Pandan, which you’ll largely find in Southeast Asian cuisine, has a grassy, vaguely floral flavor — sweet without the addition of sugar, so ephemeral it’s gone almost the minute you swallow it. Whenever you’re faced with a mysteriously, vibrantly green dessert item on an Asian menu, that item likely is flavored with pandan.
Botanically, the plant is the pandanus amaryllifolius, or the screw pine, which is not actually a pine (and should not be confused with the tougher pandanus utilis, which is like the tougher hemp to amaryllifolius’ marijuana). Unassuming and quotidianly green, pandan looks like something you’d find growing in a pot in a school library: just a humble frond of giant blades of grass that does nothing more exciting than provide a little pop of jungle in a bathroom. But this plant, which grows with little encouragement and is sometimes treated as a weed, is the key to one of the most distinctive, where-have-I-tasted-that-before flavors in the vast cornucopia of the Southeast Asian culinary spectrum.
Growing up in Bali, I have had pandan coded into my childhood memories of desserts, particularly the sticky, coconut-drenched black rice pudding I still cannot get enough of to this day. But the essential flavor in black rice pudding is not the rice or the coconut, or even the funky gula jawa sugar — it’s the pandan. It’s in Malaysian jellies, Filipino puddings, Thai ice creams and Indonesian green crepes, and is a bit reminiscent of matcha but without any bitterness (and, personally, I love pandan but do not particularly like matcha).
Now, pandan doesn’t actually taste “like” vanilla, but rather speaks to the same part of the brain, and because pandan has a less obviously sweet flavor, it lends itself as an additive to water. It seems a small thing, such a little herbaceous swizzle to turn that-which-all-humans-require into that-which-all-humans-will-crave, but pandan water is somehow more refreshing than regular water. It tastes like what you thought that Crystal Mountain spring water from the beer ads would taste like, or the stuff from the South Seas that’s so much more expensive than regular water. It’s what water dreams of being, if only it could find the right plant to soak into.
There are a couple of ways to make pandan water: You can boil the leaves and then strain the water for a light, pandan-tinged clear beverage or, for something a bit stronger, cut the leaves into chunks and then put them in a blender until they’re pulpy. Then strain that pulp through cheesecloth into a jar. You can run water through the pandan pulp a couple of times (kind of like the second and third pressing of olives) and further dilute the result. I actually like it best pretty heavily diluted, to the point where the pandan flavor tastes like a memory rather than an experience. You also can let the jar sit for a while until the green sediment settles at the bottom, and then use the water at the top for sipping and the sediment for flavoring things like ice cream.
Pandan extract does exist as an iffy, slightly rubbery tasting neon green flavoring syrup, but I prefer to buy it in its whole-leaf form. You’ll usually find it at Asian markets, sometimes fresh, often frozen — either is fine. And by the way, I have no idea what happens if you consume too much pandan, but I wouldn’t try to replace all my water with it. Everything can become a poison if in a wrong amount, after all … even water itself.
If you don’t want to make your own pandan water (because blending something feels like unpaid work?), you can run across it at the local Malaysian joint Kedai Makan, as well as my dearly beloved Bangrak Market, where I was served pandan water as a chaser for a shot one night. The shot was dizzying — a mysterious, heady kick in the teeth with notes of five-spice — but the pandan water finished it off like a cool breeze on a steamy night. Oh, and as a bonus, pandan leaves supposedly work as an insect repellent, making that steamy night a tad bit more comfortable, as well.