What's The Difference: Lemongrass Vs. Pandan

It's easy to confuse the two!

IMAGE Shutterstock
ILLUSTRATOR Mixi Ignacio

Southeast Asian cuisine uses many kinds of plants to create the powerful flavors and tastes that are in our dishes. Of these plants, two stand out as universally used throughout the region: lemongrass and pandan. 

Lemongrass, locally known as tanglad, is a tall grass that grows quite readily in many parts of the country. It's used in a variety of dishes, including the famous Bacolod inasal na manok. The pandan known internationally as the screwpine is a plant whose leaves are super fragrant. It's commonly used in desserts where its warm aroma is a delicious and common partner to buko. Buko pandan is one of the more common dishes that is infused with its aroma. 

The difference between these two common Asian plants goes beyond use. Here's how to spot the differences:  

Lemongrass is also known locally as tanglad.
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1 Lemongrass smells like lemons. Pandan smells like grassy vanilla. 

Lemongrass takes its name from what it smells like: grassy and lemony. It's a powerful aroma that is commonly used in dishes to give it a citrus taste such as in the tinanglarang manok without using lemons or even calamansi. 

The pandan meanwhile is also known as the Asian vanilla. This is because the aroma from the pandan is just as commonly used in this region as vanilla is used in the West. The flavor and aroma of pandan is actually more grassy than vanilla, so if you want to try it as a substitute for vanilla in your dishes, you can try it! 

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Pandan leaves are super fragrant.
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2 You use the bulb of the lemongrass and the leaves of the pandan. 

The pandan has blade-like leaves, and it's these that are used to infuse mixtures with its aroma. Here's how to use pandan leaves:

  1. 1 Bring about 1 cup water to a boil.
  2. 2 Add 7 to 10 pandan leaves and simmer for about 15 minutes.
  3. 3 Remove from heat and let cool completely.

You can use this water to replace the water in recipes. You can even use another liquid such as milk or cream! 

The lemongrass is literally tall blades of tough grass. It's commonly sold folded so you can actually see how long the blades can grow! The entire stalk is not edible as the fibrous outer stems are tough. The bulb is the most edible part but this is also where the most flavor is. Here's how to use lemongrass in dishes:

  1. 1 Cut the stalk as needed to the length that you either need or want to use. 
  2. 2 Remove the tough fibrous leaves if not using whole. 
  3. 3 Pound the bulb to release its oils using pestle or pandikdik that comes with your mortar or almires. You can also slice and finely chop or dice the bulb of the lemongrass, too. 
  4. 4 Add to your dish as the recipe directs. 
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Buko with pandan is a common food pairing in desserts. 
Photo by Majoy Siason

3 Pandan is usually used in desserts while lemongrass is used mainly in savory dishes. 

This doesn't mean that pandan cannot be used for savory dishes and lemongrass cannot be used in desserts! Pandan is best known as a dessert aroma but it can be used to make savory dishes smell more appetizing. It's a distinct contrast to what you may be familiar with but the pandan is used to flavor steamed rice and probably the most popular of savory dishes using the leaves, chicken pandan. Pandan is delicious when added to chicken dishes, which you can try when you make this unique chicken adobo recipe with buko juice and pandan. 

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Lemongrass meanwhile is easy to use since there is no need to infuse mixtures for long to give it its signature flavor and aroma. That's why the easiest way to use it is to add it to simple iced teas and swap out the calamansi or lemon for the tanglad. You can even infuse cream or milk to make into puddings and flans without needing to worry about the acidity of lemon juice affecting the consistency of your dessert! 

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