Make your own version with the flowery, vanilla-flavored Southeast Asian leaf.
Photo courtesy of Madame Vo; Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Pandan is one of my favorite flavors of all time. It was the flavor of birthday cake my mom bought for me throughout my childhood—pale green and decorated with tiny flowers crafted from pandan-infused buttercream. It’s the ice cream flavor I opt for, despite the expansive menu, when visiting New York’s Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. It’s also now my favorite flavor to have in a latte.
For those who have yet to experience the joy of the Southeast Asian leaves, pandan is floral and vaguely vanilla-like and steeped in a number of Southeast Asian desserts—jellies, cakes, puddings—across Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, and more.
Chef Jimmy Ly of Madame Vo describes it as “fragrant, milky, and nutty,” but also admits that it’s hard to pin down specifically. “It just smells amazing. One thing about pandan, when you smell it, you’re like, ‘Oh, it just smells like coconut in the air.’” At Madame Vo, Ly pairs his signature Vietnamese coffee with pandan-infused soy milk made in house for the perfect latte. It’s a balancing act due to how delicate of a flavor pandan can be, but Ly has found the perfect ratio.
“Vietnamese coffee is really strong,” he says. “It’s really going to kick you in your rear and wake you up and pandan is the total opposite. Pandan is more soothing—it kind of balances it out.” Originally, Ly was crafting lemongrass pandan soy milk for customers, who were drawn in by its subtly green hue. Combining the soy milk with his bold coffee just seemed like an appropriate next step.
“It just smells amazing. One thing about pandan, when you smell it, you’re like, ‘Oh, it just smells like coconut in the air.’”
Luke Jung of Luce Coffee Roasters in Houston first experienced the flavor of pandan on a trip to Singapore. “I had never tried it before, [and] I didn’t know how to replicate it,” he explains. “But the first sip that I tried made me certain that everyone would love pandan as much as I did.” He brought the memory back with him to Texas and created what he calls the Island Latte—a pandan latte paired with two shots of espresso—as well as the Black Island Latte, which also includes activated charcoal. Not only do the drinks carry the signature flavor of pandan in every sip, they’re swirls of vibrant colors—gently layered with green, brown, and black.
The pandan coffee craze is not limited to the United States. In Toronto, at Rustle & Still Cafe, Tri Ngo captures the flavors of his Vietnamese upbringing in the food and drinks. “It is definitely a childhood flavor that we grow up with,” he explains. “It’s also a segway into telling the story of how we source the beans from Southeast Asia, and pair [them] with Vietnamese street food like banh mis.”
Rustle & Still not only serves a pandan latte, but also offers a matcha pandan latte for an extra green drink. “Those two drinks are the best sellers, either iced or hot. They are particularly good with soy or oat milk, so that’s the go-to order for anyone who would like to try something refreshingly good but different from a typical latte,” he says. During the pandemic, Ngo also crafted one litre bottles of the pandan-infused lattes for customers to enjoy at home.
In the way that matcha has infiltrated every coffee shop in America, it seems as though pandan syrups and milks may follow suit. “It’s just something that you have to experience in life,” Ly says, “Once you have, you’re hooked.”
Madame Vo Pandan Soy Milk Recipe
- 10 fresh Pandan leaves, cut into small pieces
- 300 grams soybean, soaked overnight
- 2 Liters water
- ½ cup sugar (add more based on preference)
1. Rinse and strain the soaked soy beans in a colander.
2. Put half of the soybeans and ½ liter of water into the blender. Blend for roughly 20 seconds.
3. Place a large sieve on top of the mixing bowl and then place the cheesecloth on top of the sieve.
4. Pour out the soy mixture and strain. Continue to blend the remaining soy milk. Strain this mixture.
5. Add the cut pandan leaves into blender, with the remaining 1 liter of water. Blend for 20 secs, and add to large bowl. Gather and twist the cheesecloth edges together at the top tightly and squeeze out all the liquid. Discard the clumpy soy bean.
6. Pour the strained soy milk into a pot. Bring the soy milk to a boil on high heat. Then turn to medium heat and simmer for five minutes, stirring constantly. Skim any scum, and add any preference sweetener. Serve warm or cold.
7. Store in the fridge for up to 5 days.
Madame Vo Pandan Latte Recipe
- 6 ounces Pandan soy milk
- 4 ounces Black Vietnamese coffee
- Coconut milk
1. In a large cup, combine 6 ounces pandan soy milk (Sữa Đậu Nành) and 4 ounces black Vietnamese coffee, and fill with ice.
2. Liberally drizzle the top with coconut milk and enjoy.