Pandan: the peerless perfume of Penang

The voluptuous toasted fragrance of pandan is a quintessential part of the island’s exquisite cuisine. Our fragrance expert tracks down a perfume that perfectly encapsulates its luscious scent

Pinang Peranakan Mansion, George Town, Penang
Pinang Peranakan Mansion, George Town, Penang | Image: Alamy

George Town is a city of layers. Located on the Malaysian island of Penang, it was established in the 18th century by the British East India Company. The population of George Town is diverse, a mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian communities, each contributing its own traditions to Penang’s cosmopolitan blend. One of the most distinctive layers is formed by the Peranakans. The descendants of the Chinese who arrived from the 15th century and intermarried with the locals, the Peranakans blend Chinese, Malay and European customs. Their clothing, art and music are distinctive, but even more striking is their cuisine: Peranakan, or Nyonya, food is one of George Town’s main attractions.

Although the foods I tried in Penang were varied – I’ve written previously about the sheer variety of specialities on offer across its different neighbourhoods – one leitmotif during my explorations was the scent of pandan leaves. The Peranakans mix shredded pandan with rose petals, jasmine and perfume oil to create a home fragrance, but most often, the leaves of this tropical plant are used in their cuisine. Although pandan tends to be described as the vanilla of Asia for its ubiquity in desserts, its fragrance isn’t sweet. When raw, pandan smells green and nutty, but when cooked, it acquires the voluptuous, toasted perfume of basmati rice.

Ormonde Jayne Champaca, £160 for 120ml EDP
Ormonde Jayne Champaca, £160 for 120ml EDP

Pearly Kee, who teaches at the Penang Homecooking School, agrees that pandan is the ultimate dessert flavouring for its ability to harmonise the tastes of rice, coconut and palm sugar. Nyonya cakes – or "kuih", as they’re known locally – come in a variety of shapes and flavours. They can be steamed, fried, wrapped in banana leaf or baked. One of my favourite desserts was seri muka, a steamed two-layer cake of sticky rice and pandan custard. I could taste the floral complexity of pandan cutting through the creamy richness of coconut milk.

Kee, however, wanted to show me that pandan isn’t limited to puddings. She chopped a blade of pandan into chunks and sautéed it with shallots, chillies and candlenuts. She used the aromatic paste as the base for a chicken curry, and when I spooned the red sauce over rice, the flavour of pandan blossomed. 

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Returning from Penang, I was curious to find out if any perfume captured the scent of pandan. One such discovery turned out to be Ormonde Jayne’s Champaca (£160 for 120ml EDP), a composition of champaca (which is related to magnolia), freesia, green tea and basmati. At first, the perfume evokes the aura of a temple festooned with flower garlands, but in the drydown, it becomes reminiscent of a Nyonya pandan dessert. Champaca smells luscious and addictive, a combination that’s as irresistible in a perfume as in a cake.

Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.

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