I first purchased kewra in the form of the distillate, not realising that I'd been tasting it for many years in Indian sweet dishes such as ras malai.
Kewra fruits ripening
Pandanus odoratissimus is native to Southern and peninsular South-East Asia, but also significantly cultivated on the Indian East coast. Various other species of the genus pandanus grow in tropical regions of South-East and Southern Asia and some of these have fragrant leaves. A closely related species is p. tectorius, which has a more Pacific distribution from Australia to Polynesia. Its flowers are fragrant, but it is not used for the production of kewra water. Some other species are valued for their edible fruits or for their strong leaves.
Male flowers. They are used almost exclusively in the form of an aqueous distillate known as "kewra water".
Pandanaceae (screwpine family).
Kewra flowers have a sweet, perfumed odour with a pleasant quality similar to rose flowers but more fruity. The aqueous distillate kewra water or pandanus flower water is quite dilute and can be used by the teaspoon (or even by the tablespoon).
The genus name pandanus is derived from New Latin pandanus, from the Malay word pandan "screwpine". The English term "screw tree" and its analogues in many European languages are motivated by the arrangement of leaves typical of the genus. In European languages, there is no distinction between the species yielding pandanus leaves, p. amaryllifolius and the group of species yielding pandanus flowers, p. odoratissimus.
Latin species name odoratissimus means "most scented". The common name "kewra" is derived directly from the Hindi name for the plant, kewra, but the origin of this name is unknown.
Pandanus flowers, stemming from a palm-like tree cultivated in India, have a delicate, floral scent and are used to flavour foods, particularly North Indian sweets. This flavouring should not be confused with pandanus leaves, which stem from a related species and are used occasionally in South India, but mostly in South-East Asia, to flavour sweet rice dishes.
Pandanus water, distilled from male pandanus flowers, is popular in North India and mainly used to flavour the sweets that Indians prepare from the most commonplace ingredients such as milk and sugar. Some Indian sweets, normally attributed to Bengali cuisine but available all over the country, are ras gulla (balls of chana and flour cooked in syrup), gulab jamun (fried balls of khoya and flour served with syrup) and ras malai (chana balls in a rich, creamy rabadi sauce). In order to not waste the delicate scent, pandanus water is sprinkled over chana balls just before consumption (ras gulla are often allowed to steep in pandanus-flavoured syrup for a longer time).
Another application for kewra is in the highly aromatic rice dishes of Mogul cuisine, biryanis. The most elaborate recipes sometimes call for kewra water to be sprinkled over the rice just before serving. In Central Asia and in the Gulf countries (where pandanus is unknown) similar rice dishes are often perfumed with rose water, which is also delicious.
Although pandanus trees grow almost everywhere in tropical Asia, kewra water is mainly a North Indian flavouring and is not used elsewhere. Indian emigrants, however, have taken their likening for this flavour with them and transported pandanus trees to other tropical areas. In Western cooking, kewra water makes a excellent alternative to the flower essences already in local use, such as rose and orange.