NYC’s Best Pandan Desserts

Introduction

In the last six years of life in NYC, we have encountered wave after wave of Asia-influenced dessert trends.  We have popped our fair share of bubble waffle ice cream creations, spliced layers of creamy mille crepe cakes, been engulfed in the Japanese-style cream puffs explosion, counted one-thousand-and-one-ways to use bubble tea, and nibbled the weird-sometimes-wonderful-sometimes-not croffle or souffle pancake or mochi doughnut hybrid dessert.  By contrast to these past dessert trends which have found inspiration from East Asia, we have witnessed more recently, a proliferation of specialty sweet spots highlighting South East Asian dessert traditions instead.  Borne of the pandemic, there has been the likes of Kuih Cafe, Lady Wong, Kabisera, Sundae Service, The Boiis Co, Kora Doughnuts, Ban Be.  Although we have not yet come across a specialty dessert place that makes kaya (pandan coconut jam) comparable to our mother’s incomparable version, we round up the best pandan desserts we have sampled so far in NYC — in celebration of the city’s nascent love affair with this key ingredient of South-East Asian desserts.


Pandan kuih 

  • ☑ Dessert destination:
  • ☑ Short and sweet story:  As the first shop in Manhattan to specialize in Nonya Kuih, Kuih Cafe is an unassuming little spot in a quieter pocket of Chinatown.  We have lost count of the number of times we have visited for its $10 aluminum foil platter of roughly-hewn kuih cubes that change weekly, and which were the perfect antidote to severe pandemic-induced homesickness.  The second, more recent, kuih maker to enter the NYC dessert landscape, is Lady Wong — she crafts very refined kuih in a shopfront styled as a fancy French patisserie, complete with gleaming glass counters, very amiable service, and beautifully-considered batik packaging. 

Pandan chiffon cake

  • ☑ Dessert destination: 
  • ☑ Short and sweet story:  There are two desserts that these Dessert Correspondents have never been able to successfully make ourselves: (i) macarons, and (ii) pandan chiffon cake.  The best pandan chiffon cake must be a cloud-like creation — ultra-light, and with a perfectly-even tanned brown outer surface.  In Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, the pandan chiffon cake is usually unadorned.  In the Philippines, it is often layered with coconut cream or desiccated coconut.  And in Hong Kong, it is a little heavier, but still spongy, in form.  We have scouted down three spots in NYC where you can find these airy pillows of pandan, with Kuih Cafe and Little House Cafe featuring a more Malaysian slant, whereas Spongies and Kam Hing infuse their sponge cakes with a HK sensibility. 

Pandan ice cream

  • ☑ Dessert destination: 
  • ☑ Short and sweet story:  Whereas Sundae Service’s pandan ice cream is akin to eating coconut-flavoured snow, Morgenstern’s errs towards a more subtle flavour with a twang of pineapple.  Kaylee’s offers the creamiest pandan ice cream in the city, with each scoop of pandan ice cream here also swirled with ube and coconut.  And Chinatown Ice Cream Factory’s alien neon-green version veers most closely of all to the unique savoury-sweet taste profile of pandan.

Pandan cold desserts

  • ☑ Dessert destination: 
    • For che — Bambu, various locations. 
    • For pandan coconut milk – Ban Be, Carroll Gardens.
    • For salim and cendol — Khao Nom, Elmhurst, Queens. 
  • ☑ Short and sweet story:  Chilled desserts that are not ice cream are a particular specialty of South East Asia, providing a respite from the often sweltering, sticky humidity typical of those countries.  From Thailand and Vietnam, there’s tall glasses of che drinks layered with pandan jelly, grass jelly and tub tim krob (red ruby tapioca), as well as salim, glass vermicelli noodles drifting in coconut milk.  In Malaysia and Singapore, we have the wonders of thicker raindrop-shaped cendol — sometimes swirled with sweet corn, red bean, mung beans, durian or jackfruit, sometimes buried under a mountain of shaved ice laced with condensed milk or rose syrup, but always floating in a bowl of condensed milk with a dash of gula melaka.  The Filipino version is buko pandan, where cubes of a more translucent type of pandan jelly swim in coconut milk.

Pandan for breakfast

  • ☑ Dessert destination:  
    • For french toast — Wayan, Soho/East Village, Manhattan.
    • For pancake — Khao Nom, Elmhurst, Queens.
    • For crepe — Kuih Cafe, Chinatown, Manhattan. 
  • ☑ Short and sweet story:  Wayan is a great spot to hit up when you are looking for brunch that is not-another-boring-avocado-toast affair.  Embellished with a bruleed pineapple, the french toast here is a moist long with coconut and caramel tones, and accompanied by a streak of pandan coconut jam.  Kuih Cafe’s kuih dadar features fragrant toasted coconut tightly rolled into crepe cigars, while Khao Nom’s pandan pancake rolls bring back sweet memories of childhood holidays in Malaysia. 


Pandan tart

  • ☑ Dessert destination:  
  • ☑ Short and sweet story: Do you remember the first restaurant you ever visited in NYC?  For us, that would be Noreetuh in the East Village.  Almost six years later, it’s still the only restaurant we know of in the city that focuses on Hawaiian food.  There are usually four desserts on the menu, but don’t bypass our favourite dessert at Noreetuh, the “Mango Pandan Pie” ($9).  It’s a silky bouncy pudding with beautifully pronounced flavours.  In previous years, we have also seen a different version of it featuring ube and calamansi.  For a Hong Kong-style egg tart infused with pandan, Chard offers a flaky, albeit expensive, morsel.  And at Lady Wong, you can find a pretty pandan matcha mousse tart, where East Asia meets South East Asia meets France. 

Pandan tiramisu and panna cotta 

  • ☑ Dessert destination:  Lady Wong, East Village, Manhattan.  (See also, here).
  • ☑ Short and sweet story:  Aside from slicing up exquisitely-made kuih (see above), Lady Wong also infuses more classical Western/European desserts with the flavours of South-East Asia.  For example, don’t miss Lady Wong’s tiramisu, which features ladyfinger sponge lavishly soaked in gula melaka, and layered with pandan custard and coconut cream with a pronounced salty edge.  If you are after something less sweet, but with a similar flavour profile, the pandan panna cotta is a favourite of yours truly here.  

Pandan biscuits 

  • ☑ Dessert destination: Ban Be, delivery only and/or limited edition pop-ups.
  • ☑ Short and sweet story:  Garnering an apparently 10,000+ persons waitlist, Ban Be’s Danish-style butter biscuits are highly coveted for afternoon snacking.  Her pandan biscuits are vibrant neon-green in colour, but a fleeting whisper in terms of flavour profile.

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