What is wattalapan?
Wattalapan (වටලපපන), one of the most popular desserts of Sri Lanka, is a sort of relatively dense flan with an incredibly silky texture, whose scents reflect the exoticism and cultural blend of this island.
Roasted cashews sprinkled on top of the dessert gives it a crisp contrast. It is a perfect way to finish a meal with a sweet touch!
What is the origin of wattalapan?
You can quickly get lost in the different spellings of this creamy dessert: watalappam, wattalapan or vatlappam. The name comes from Tamil, a contraction of vattil meaning “cup” and appam meaning “cake” or “pancake”. How ironic as the dessert is not originally Tamil, although it is very popular in this community.
It is very similar to Indonesian kaya or seri kaya, also very popular in Southeast Asia, which is a kind of spread with coconut and eggs. What they have in common at the ingredients: thick coconut milk, eggs and palm sugar.
While kaya is often scented with pandan leaves, wattalapan has been influenced by Sri Lanka and the many spices that grow on this tropical island such as cardamom, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg.
What is jaggery?
Wattalapan also gets its incomparable taste from palm sugar or jaggery. Unrefined sugar, obtained from a juice extracted from the flowers of the sugar palm.
The color of jaggery is dark brown to caramel blond. It is better to go with brown ones as light colors are usually obtained by adding chemicals. The brown color will also give a pretty beautiful hue to the cream.
What is kitul sap?
In Sri Lanka, jaggery is made from the traditional exploitation of a large-flowered palm tree called Caryota Urens or kitul. Kitul sap is extracted and brought to a boil to make a brown syrup with subtle hints of caramel.
This sap was elected “Ark of taste” by the Slow Food movement, organization that strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine around the world. It is a rare product that is all the more interesting to discover that it is natural, rich in vitamins B12, B1, C, calcium and iron.
Palm sugar or kitul sap are both healthier alternatives to refined sugar. In Sri Lanka, this dessert is also known to soothe the stomach and cool the body according to the principles of Ayurvedic medicine.
The popularity of wattalapan
No festival, wedding or celebration is complete without wattalapan to finish the meal. It is very popular among Sri Lankan Muslim communities. It will inevitably be found on the tables to celebrate the end of Ramadan, alongside biriyani.
Great national pride: it was served to Queen Elizabeth II during one of her visits to the island. And Dudley Senanayake, former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, considered a big foodie, loved it as this anecdote confirms:
At the end of his studies, Dudley’s parents were searching for a suitable wife for their son. They arranged a meeting with Sirima Ratwatte, the daughter of a Sri Lankan aristocrat. Dudley and his family were warmly welcomed and a sumptuous lunch was served, including wattalapan made with the best jaggery. Dudley enjoyed it again and again!
On the way home, his parents, eager to hear his opinion of Sirima, asked him, “What did you think?” To which Dudley replied: “Hari shoak! Hari shoak!” (excellent!) The parents were ecstatic: “Sirima is perfect! “But Dudley quickly replied:” But who is Sirima? I was talking about wattalapan!” Who knows, maybe this marriage would not changed the history of Sri Lanka.
Quality of the wattalapan on the decline
Sadly, Sri Lankans have been witnessing a decline in wattalapan for some years now. For economic reasons, manufacturers have been replacing traditional products with poor quality ingredients: jaggery with refined sugar, coconut milk with condensed milk and spices with artificial flavors. Result: a tasteless and ultra sweet dessert!
Wattalapan requires few ingredients and its preparation is simple. Everything lies in the quality of its ingredients: quality palm sugar, fresh eggs, freshly ground spices that are rich in aroma and a thick coconut milk.
How to make wattalapan
This custard is simply prepared by mixing beaten eggs with grated palm sugar, coconut milk and spices. This mixture is poured into ramekins, the thickness of the cream should be around 1½ inch. The ramekins can be greased beforehand if you want to easily unmold it. The dessert is then baked in a bain-marie until a creamy but firm consistency is obtained.
Traditionally, wattalapan was steamed, so when baked in the oven, it should not be baked at a too high temperature. Baking in a bain-marie will work perfectly. The top will be golden and slightly crisp. Check the result with the tip of a knife, which must come out clean if fully cooked. The cream must however be flickering.
The hard part will be to let it cool down and wait patiently for it to be ready to melt in your mouth! Just remember that it will only be better as the flavors will be well mixed.
‘Oyaagae ahaara vaela rasavaindainana’ … or bon appetit in Sinhalese!
- 4 oz. palm sugar , grated
- 1 cup thick coconut milk
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 1 pinch ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 5 eggs
- 1 oz. cashew nuts , roasted unsalted, halved or crushed
- 4 (7 oz.) ramekins
Preheat oven to 300F/150C.
- In a saucepan, add the palm sugar, coconut milk, spices and vanilla.
- Heat the pan on low heat, and stir for 5 minutes, until the sugar dissolves.
- Reserve and let cool, stirring occasionally.
- When the mixture is lukewarm, break the eggs in a large salad bowl and whisk until they are pale and creamy.
- Gradually add the coconut milk mixture and whisk for 2 minutes.
- Filter the mixture through a fine sieve.
- Divide the dish into 4 ramekins and place in a large, shallow oven dish.
- Fill this dish with boiling water to get to the middle of the ramekins.
- Bake in a bain-marie (water bath) for 30 minutes.
- Sprinkle half of the cashews and cook for another 10 minutes.
- Remove the ramekins from the bain-marie and allow to cool.
- Refrigerate for 3 hours before tasting.
- Sprinkle each ramekin with the remaining cashews just before serving.