Fragrant herb exudes smell of success in China’s tropical island of Hainan
Published: Nov 25, 2022 11:10 PM Updated: Nov 25, 2022 11:08 PM
Wanning, South China’s Hainan Province Photo: VCG

Wanning, South China’s Hainan Province Photo: VCG

In an Indonesian-style restaurant decorated with special wood ceilings, green-layered jelly-like desserts lure many foodies visiting from across China.

"I definitely like the coconut rolls with pandan leaf juice," said a tourist surnamed Zhang, from northeast China. "I have ordered some to take home for my friends."

The snack shop is located in Xinglong town, Wanning, a coastal city in the tropical island province of Hainan in south China. It offers a variety of products, such as coffee, herbal tea, and cakes, all specially mixed in with green pandan leaf juice. The snacks are captivating for customers eager to have a taste of the distinctive flavor of Southeast Asia, said shop owner Zhan Shumin, 38.

"My granny was born and raised in Indonesia, and since I was a little girl, I begged her to teach me how to make snacks with pandan leaf juice," she said.

Pandan is a tropical plant with fragrant leaves frequently used in food as flavoring in both Southeast and South Asia. In the 1950s, some Chinese nationals returned from overseas and introduced the plant to Xinglong, and desserts made with pandan leaf juice gradually gained popularity in the area.

Wanning has agreeable weather, with an average annual temperature of around 23 C and average annual precipitation of 2,100 millimeters. The average humidity is 86 percent while average annual sunshine is up to 2,200 hours, making it a perfect place for pandan cultivation.

The introduction of pandan plants has translated into quite a business in Wanning, with locals currently growing more than 333 hectares of this fragrant herb in the city, according to the latest government figures.

"Pandan plants grow very well in areas with abundant water resources, of which Xinglong has many, and that is why Xinglong is great for the cultivation of this plant," Zhan said.

Given her family connection with Indonesia, Zhan decided to keep some of this culture alive through dessert-making, she said.

"Handmade desserts using pandan leaves really represent that culture well," she said, adding that women in her family all know how to make such snacks.

"You collect pandan leaves, clean them, then mix and blend them with water," she said. "Then it is important to filter the green juice three times to make a concentrate, mix the concentrate with cassava flour, sugar and salt, before steaming the mixture for at least 50 minutes. Every step is essential."

She started selling the desserts in 2014 as a street vendor. Sales went so well that she expanded her business into a big snack shop within just two years.

"Many customers come from far away just to have a taste," she said. "Currently, the shop uses about 50 kilograms of fresh pandan leaves a day."

The most popular desserts are pandan cakes and pandan rolls with durian sauce, Zhan said. Pandan rainbow rolls featuring multiple colored layers are also popular.

"My personal favorite is, of course, the pandan coconut rolls, which have sliced coconut on the surface," she said.

Her shop, Xinglong Nanyang Flavor, has become a must-visit venue in the tourist city, garnering a high score and thousands of comments from customers on Dianping, the Chinese version of Yelp.

"I am just so happy that people enjoy the desserts that we make," she said.

This success story resulted in many other locals jumping on the bandwagon, and in Xinglong alone, scores of similar snack bars have sprung up.

The cash crop is taking root in Wanning and other Hainan cities such as Qionghai and Danzhou, according to Chen Deran, an official in charge of rural revitalization in Wanning. "Pandan plants are easy to grow, taking about 10 to 12 months to reach harvesting maturity, and can be harvested for many years to come," Chen said.

In Qiaobei Village, for example, about 90 percent of villagers grow these plants, after local authorities gave them free seedlings and scientists taught them planting techniques.

"I think the future of pandan cultivation is bright," said Chen.