Aromatic herb exudes smell of success on China’s tropical island of Hainan

Wanning, South China's Hainan Province Photo: VCG

Wanning, South China’s Hainan Province Photo: VCG

In an Indonesian-style restaurant decorated with special wooden ceilings, the green-layered gelatinous desserts attract many foodies from all over China.

“I definitely like coconut rolls with pandan leaf juice,” said a tourist surnamed Zhang from northeast China. “I’ve ordered some to take home for my friends.”

The snack shop is located in Xinglong City, Wanning, a coastal city in the tropical province of Hainan Island in southern China. It offers a variety of products, such as coffee, herbal tea, and cakes, all specially blended with green pandan leaf juice. The snacks wow customers eager to try the distinctive flavor of Southeast Asia, said shop owner Zhan Shumin, 38.

“My grandmother was born and raised in Indonesia, and ever since I was a child, I begged her to teach me how to make pandan leaf juice sandwiches,” she said.

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

Wanning has a pleasant climate, with an average annual temperature of around 23 C and an average annual rainfall of 2,100 millimeters. The average humidity is 86 percent, while the annual average sunlight is up to 2,200 hours, making it a perfect place for growing pandans.

The introduction of pandan plants has brought big business to Wanning, with locals now cultivating more than 333 hectares of the 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 plenty, and that is why Xinglong is excellent for growing this plant,” Zhan said.

Given his family’s connection to Indonesia, Zhan decided to keep part of this culture alive through making desserts, he said.

“Handmade pandan leaf desserts really represent that culture well,” she said, adding that all the women in her family know how to make such snacks.

“You collect pandan leaves, clean them, then mix them and mix them with water,” he said. ‚ÄúThen 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 were so good that she expanded her business into a large sandwich shop in just two years.

“Many customers come from far away just to try,” he 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. Rainbow Pandan rolls with multiple layers of colors are also popular.

“My personal favorite is, of course, the coconut pandan rolls, which have coconut slices on the surface,” he said.

His shop, Xinglong Nanyang Flavor, has become a must-visit spot in the tourist city, earning high scores and thousands of customer reviews on Dianping, China’s version of Yelp.

“I’m so happy that people enjoy the desserts that we make,” she said.

This success story made many other locals jump on the bandwagon, and dozens of similar coffee shops have sprung up in Xinglong alone.

Cash farming is taking root in Wanning and other Hainan cities such as Qionghai and Danzhou, according to Chen Deran, official in charge of rural revitalization in Wanning. “Pandan plants are easy to grow, take 10 to 12 months to reach harvest maturity, and can be harvested for many years,” Chen said.

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

“I think the future of pandan farming is bright,” Chen said.


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