The Legend of Pandan (Picture Prattle)

20 Feb

Over President’s Day I hosted a friend who’d been to San Francisco many times before. Since she’d already seen the top tourist attractions, I suggested we head out to a few of the neighborhoods that are farther from the city’s tourist-centric core. What resulted was a food-driven adventure that criss-crossed the city, from ramen in Japantown to knishes in Little Russia to bread pudding in Hayes Valley.

We didn’t just go to restaurants, because my friend and I share more than a love of delicious food: we also share a love of wandering grocery stores, looking for something new and different. We had a blast as we went through San Francisco’s myriad ethnic groceries, examining packages of dried exotic fruits, reminiscing over foreign products we hadn’t seen since trips abroad, and wondering about the relative popularity of these foods in their native lands.

The mystical pandan beverage, discovered in a grocery store in SF

The pandan beverage in its grocery store habitat

For some reason, we became fixated on a green drink labeled “pandan with basil seeds.” It was next to an orange drink labeled “honey with basil seeds.” Floating orbs of basil seeds was an intriguing proposition, regardless of their accompanying ingredients. But basil seeds with “pandan” were even more intriguing than those with honey, because we had absolutely no idea what pandan was. We stood staring at this green drink for a bit, trying to guess whether pandan was an ingredient or a brand name, a fruit or vegetable, etc. We came up with a lot of theories- but truly had no clue. Rather than Googling it right then and there, we decided to try this mysterious pandan without knowing anything about it.  So we bought ourselves a green, orb-filled bottle and went on our merry way.

As it turned out, we didn’t like drinking pandan with basil seeds (it was too sweet for us). But we DID enjoy spending the rest of the day referencing pandan and trying to guess what it was. It was much more fun for pandan to be a mysterious ingredient than it would have been if we’d just turned to Wikipedia back in that grocery store aisle. In an age of Googling everything and apps that decode the world around you, we can forget what it’s like to simply not know the answer to a solvable question. I wouldn’t go so far as to say ignorance can be bliss, but it can certainly be entertaining.

Of course, we did Google pandan later that night. And so we learned that it’s a plant, used in many types of Asian cooking and often taking on a role similar to vanilla. We learned it’s used in all sorts of products, from baked goods to sticky rice. We’d certainly give pandan another try if we encountered it in another form. And though we now know what it is, the memories of the legend of pandan will always live on in our hearts.


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