Desserts and Sweets

Watalappan වටලප්පන් (Steamed, Spiced Coconut Custard)

Boasting a pleasant aroma owing to the use of exotic spices, a rich flavor due to jaggery (an unrefined palm sugar) and fresh thick coconut milk, a creamy melt-in-the-mouth texture thanks to fresh eggs and occasional nutty bites thanks to cashew nuts, watalappan වටලප්පන් is a popular steamed pudding in Sri Lanka.

This delicacy is believed to have been introduced to local folks in this paradise island by the Malays, whose ancestry can be traced to the Malayan peninsular and the Indonesian archipelago. Watalappan  or “siri kaya” as it is known in the Sri Lankan Malay community, is quite likely to be a derivative of a popular coconut milk and egg custard with origins in Indonesia, known as “sarikayo”. Watalappan may also have been influenced by a popular coconut milk and egg jam with origins in Indonesia (where it is known as “srikaya”) and Malaysia (where it is known as “seri kaya” but more commonly known as “kaya”). In Singapore too, this jam is very popular, and is also known as “kaya”.

Unsurprisingly, the key ingredients for all three foods i.e., watalappan/siri kaya and Indonesia’s sarikayo and the Indonesian/Malaysian/Singaporean srikaya/kaya are the same i.e., thick coconut milk, eggs and unrefined palm sugar (known as “gula melaka” in Malaysia and “gula merah” in Indonesia) with the only noticeable difference being that the latter is a structure-less jam usually enjoyed with toast or bread whereas the two former versions have a structure akin to a pudding and are consumed as desserts.

Indonesia’s sarikayo and the Indonesian/Malaysian/Singaporean srikaya/kaya feature pandan leaves (screwpine leaves) which is also used in Sri Lanka’s watalappan sometimes. More often however, watalappan is infused with the flavor and aroma of spices such as cardamoms, cinnamon and cloves.

This difference in ingredients may have been a Sri Lankan influence; exotic spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and cloves are extensively used throughout Sri Lankan cuisine, whereas in Indonesian/Malaysian cuisine fresh herbs such as pandan leaves, lemongrass and galangal are more prominent.

Apart from sarikayo and srikaya/kaya there are other culinary examples that reflect this regional difference in flavor preference. For instance, a sago dessert known as “sago gula melaka” in Malaysia is quite similar to Sri Lanka’s “sau kenda” සව් කැඳ (which literally means “sago porridge” in Singhalese). Both versions see sago pearls served with a deliciously rich sauce made of thick coconut milk and unrefined palm sugar. However, while the Malaysian version is fragranced and flavored with pandan leaves, the Sri Lankan version instead sees green cardamoms bumping up the flavor and aroma profile of the dessert.

A popular mung bean porridge known as “bubur kacang ijo” in Indonesia or “bubur kacang hijau” in Malaysia (both translate into “green bean porridge”) shares essentially the same ingredients as the Sri Lankan version called “mung ata kenda” මුං ඇට කැඳ in Singhalese (which translates into “mung bean porridge”) – mung beans, thick coconut milk and unrefined palm sugar. Here again, the Indonesian and Malaysian versions are fragranced and flavored with pandan leaves whereas the Sri Lankan version is dressed up with a colorful medley of spices, fruits and nuts such as green cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cashew nuts and raisins.

The ingredients that make up watalappan are natural and healthy. Unrefined palm sugar, also known as jaggery, or “hakuru” හකුරු in Singhalese is generally considered to be a natural and relatively healthier sweetener than refined sugar; unrefined palm sugar is rich in minerals and micronutrients whereas with refined sugar these nutrients have been stripped off during the refining process. Thus, watalappan can be considered to be a relatively healthy dessert.

For best results, use only the highest quality jaggery and the freshest ingredients, i.e., fresh eggs, fresh spices and freshly squeezed thick coconut milk.

While there are many spice options available for this pudding, cardamom is arguably the most popular spice for this pudding in Sri Lanka.

Ceylon cinnamon, known as “kurundu” කුරුඳු in Singhalese, is considerably different from the more commonly available “cassia”, which is cheaper than Ceylon cinnamon and is often mistakenly called “cinnamon”.

Ceylon cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka. It is a very delicate quill with a thin bark, flakes easily, has a sweet taste and sweet-smelling fragrance. Cassia on the other hand is native to China. Indonesia and China are notable exporters. Cassia sticks are extremely hard with a very thick bark, does not flake at all, has a strong, spicy taste and scent. For a more authentic watalappan, use Ceylon cinnamon.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Serves 3-4 people

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup (about 230 milliliters) fresh thick coconut milk
  • 2 fresh medium-sized eggs
  • 4-5 tablespoons grated jaggery
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • Cashew nuts as desired – roughly chopped
  • Raisins as desired (optional)

 

Spices (use any or a combination as desired. Adjust quantities as desired. Fresh spices are stronger and more potent than old spices.):

  • 4-6 green cardamom pods – lightly crushed, husks discarded
  • 1/2 inch piece Ceylon cinnamon
  • 1 clove
  • 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • Beans from half a vanilla pod

 

Method:

Into a bowl, beat eggs one by one until frothy.

Add grated jaggery, thick coconut milk and salt.

Beat thoroughly until jaggery is dissolved and the mixture is smooth and free of lumps.

Strain the mixture.

Add the spices into the strained mixture and mix thoroughly.

Pour mixture into a pudding basin or into ramekins.

Sprinkle with cashew nuts and raisins (if using). Reserve some cashew nuts.

Cover with a foil.

Into a pressure cooker or other vessel used for steaming, pour about 2 cups of water (room temperature).

Place a steaming wire stand.

Onto the wire stand, place the foil-wrapped pudding basin or ramekins containing the mixture.

Cover and turn on heat to medium high.

Steam the watalappan until it sets (roughly 30-40 minutes) and is aromatic.

Sprinkle cashew nuts reserved earlier.

Serve warm or chilled.

 

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Sau Kenda සව් කැඳ (Sago Porridge)

Sri Lankan sago porridge, known as “sau kenda” in Singhalese is a delicious porridge of sago pearls boiled in a rich concoction of thick coconut milk known as “pol kiri” පොල් කිරි (“pol” පොල් = coconut, “kiri” කිරි = milk), sweetened with jaggery known as “hakuru” හකුරු, which is an unrefined form of sugar and fragranced with exotic spices such as aromatic green cardamoms known as “enasaal” එනසාල් and cinnamon, known as “kurundu” කුරුඳු.

Sau kenda සව් කැඳ  literally means “sago porridge” in Singhalese (“sau” සව් means “sago and “kenda” කැඳ means “porridge”).

Sago is believed to have cooling properties and is often consumed in Sri Lanka during sweltering hot months, either warm or chilled.

Sri Lanka’s sago porridge bears some resemblance to the Malaysian dessert “sago gula melaka”, which is a sago pudding served with thick coconut milk, an unrefined palm sugar known as “gula melaka” and fragranced with pandan leaves.

The sago pearls are boiled until translucent – this may require some practice as overboiling the sago pearls could dissolve them whereas underboiling the sago pearls will result in pearls that are not translucent.

Freshly squuezed thick coconut milk, fresh cardamoms and/or cinnamon and good quality jaggery are imperative for a quality outcome.

 

Preparation time: 15-20 minutes

Serves 3-4

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup or about 200 grams sago pearls
  • 2 1/2 – 3 cups or about 625 – 750 ml spring water
  • 1 cup or about 250 ml thick coconut milk
  • 1/4 cup jaggery – dissolved in about 1/4 cup of spring water
  • Pinch of salt

Spices (use one or both):

  • 5-8 green cardamom pods – lightly crushed to open the pods
  • Cinnamon stick

Method:

Bring water to a rolling boil in a heavy bottom saucepan, over medium heat.

Once water is boiling, add sago pearls and green cardamom pods.

Cook sago pearls until they turn translucent. Stir every now and then but don’t stir too often as the sago pearls could dissolve which is undersirable; the key is to cook the sago pearls till they turn translucent but yet they maintain their spherical shape. This takes practice.

Once sago pearls turn translucent, add the coconut milk and dissolved jaggery. Alternatively, take sago off the heat and when serving the sago, serve the coconut milk and dissolved jaggery separately, allowing each individual to adjust the quantity of coconut milk and jaggery according to personal preference.

The sago porridge can be served warm or chilled. If serving chilled, set aside to cool and then place the sago porridge (as well as the coconut milk and jaggery if they are being served separately) in a refrigerator.

 

Thai Steamed Pumpkin With Coconut (“Luk Fag Tong Cim Makhrao” ลูกฟักทองจิ้มมะพร้าว)

This Thai dish is a popular snack or dessert, requiring little time and just a few simple ingredients to prepare – pumpkin (known as “fag tong” ฟักทอง in Thai), freshly shredded coconut (known as “makhrao” มะพร้าว ), crushed Thai palm sugar, and salt. Requiring no artificial or processed ingredients, it is nourishing and satisfying.

It starts with a fresh, firm variety of pumpkin which would require a considerable effort to cut and the pumpkin should have a distinct sweet taste when cooked. Kabocha squash would be an example that fits these criteria. The pumpkin must be steamed until just cooked and firm, not soft and mushy.

Freshly shredded coconut is preferred not only for maximum taste but for nutrition as well.

Although some modern preparations use refined sugar, this recipe uses traditional Thai unrefined palm sugar, not only for its unique taste but also because unrefined palm sugar is generally accepted to be a more nutritious and healthier sweetener than refined sugar.

Preparation time: 20 – 30 minutes

Serves: 6-7 people

Ingredients:

  • 1 firm pumpkin such as kabocha squash
  • Freshly shredded coconut as desired
  • 2-3 tablespoons or as desired Thai palm sugar
  • Pinch sea salt

Method:

Rinse the pumpkin thoroughly ensuring any dirt and grit is removed from the skin.

Using a sharp knife cut the pumpkin into wedges about 1-2 inches width at the base. If desired, peel off the skin.

Remove the seeds.

Steam the pumpkin wedges until the pumpkin is just sufficiently cooked but not overdone. The time to cook depends on the width and size of the pumpkin wedges. Insert a fork or knife and the flesh should feel firmly cooked but not soft.

Stop heat and keep covered until ready to serve. The pumpkin can be served warm or at room temperature.

When ready to serve, place the shredded coconut over the pumpkin wedges and sprinkle crushed palm sugar and salt over the pumpkin wedges. Alternatively, prepare a coconut topping. In a bowl, combine shredded coconut, crushed palm sugar and pinch of salt into the shredded coconut and mix well. Place the topping over the pumpkin wedges.

Kue Wajik / Kuih Wajik / Kuih Wajid

Kue Wajik / Kuih Wajik / Kuih Wajid decorated with pandan leaves, served on a white rectangular plate.

A healthy Southeast Asian dessert – Kue Wajik / Kuih Wajik / Kuih Wajid

Popular in Indonesia (especially in Java where the sweet holds great cultural significance), Malaysia and Brunei, kue wajik / kuih wajik / kuih wajid is a traditional chewy sweet rice cake made with glutinous rice (also known as sticky rice), palm sugar, thick coconut milk and pandan.

The cake is believed to have originated in Indonesia. It is particularly popular in Java, where wajik is held as a symbol of harmony and thus is often served at weddings.

In Indonesia it is known as “wajik ketan” (“ketan” means “glutinous rice” in Indonesian), “kue wajik” or just “wajik” (“kue” means “cake” in Indonesian), in Malaysia it is known as “kuih wajik” or just “wajik” (“kuih” means “cake in Malay) and in Brunei it is known as “kuih wajid” or just “wajid”.

In all three countries, the sweet is made with exactly the same ingredients – glutinous rice, coconut milk, palm sugar and pandan leaves. In all three countries, there are no fixed recipes for this sweet rice cake, with different families having their own variations to the preparation method passed down from generation to generation. Ingredient quantities were also rarely strictly measured out and instead involved guesswork and estimations.

While the ingredients are the same, the manner of serving the cake differs – in Indonesia and Malaysia it is usually served cut into diamonds (in connection with the name of the cake – “wajik” means “diamond” in Indonesian) whereas in Brunei individual bite-sized pieces of the sweet cake are painstakingly enveloped in rectangular banana leaf packets.

In Brunei, wajid is traditionally made with a Javanese variety of rice known as “beras Jawa” (“beras” means “rice” in Indonesian and Malay) and the resulting wajid is referred to as “wajid Jawa”.

Fresh, good quality ingredients are paramount for a quality outcome. While canned, UHT, powdered coconut milk can be used, freshly squeezed coconut milk yields a considerably superior result. Palm sugar (known as “gula jawa” in Indonesia and “gula melaka” in Malaysia) contributes a distinct flavor and color to the sweet which refined sugar or brown sugar cannot match. Palm sugar, being unrefined by nature is considered to be healthier than refined sugar thus making this sweet a relatively healthy treat to enjoy.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup glutinous rice
  • 5-6 tablespoons hot water
  • 1/3 – 1 cup palm sugar
  • 1/2 cup thin coconut milk
  • 4 pandan leaves – tied to a knot
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup thick coconut milk
  • Banana leaves

Method:

Wash glutinous rice.

Soak glutinous rice overnight.

Drain water from soaked glutinous rice.

Steam glutinous rice with 2 pandan leaves.

When glutinous rice is about 3/4 cooked, add about 5-6 tablespoons of hot water and let steam again until the glutinous rice is cooked and soft.

Once glutinous rice is cooked stop heat.

Grease a tin or baking tray.

In a heavy-bottom pot, boil thin coconut milk and palm sugar until the palm sugar is completely dissolved.

Strain this palm sugar syrup to remove any impurities.

Return palm sugar syrup to heavy-bottom pot, add salt and the remaining two pandan leaves.

Cook for a while, stirring continuously until it bubbles.

Add coconut milk slowly and stir continuously.

Reduce heat and simmer, stirring continuously until mixture thickens.

Transfer cooked glutinous rice into the mixture.

Cook, stirring frequently until the liquid evaporates and the mixture is a glossy, thick, pliable mass.

Immediately pour the mixture into the tin / baking tray.

Using a banana leaf, press down the cake.

Cover the cake with banana leaves.

Set aside at room temperature to cool.

Cut into diamonds.

 

Agar-Agar Gula Melaka (Agar-Agar Dessert Flavored With Gula Melaka)

Agar-agar gula melaka, served in a glass, rectangular dish.

A healthy and delicious Malaysian dessert – agar-agar gula melaka.

Agar-agar gula melaka is an aromatic and flavorful local dessert from Malaysia, made with agar-agar and thick coconut milk, fragranced with pandan and sweetened with gula melaka. The two-tone layers of the dessert make for a pleasing appearance, requiring no extra effort; the coconut milk fat is lower in density than water and hence it floats to the top.

Gula melaka,as it is known in Malaysia, is an unrefined form of palm sugar, made from sap extracted from the date, coconut or sago palm. The sap is boiled over low flame until it thickens and is left to solidify in hollow bamboo tubes, usually 3-5 inches in length, thus forming a cylindrical block of natural sweetener with a rich, complex flavor and aroma that refined sugar cannot match. The color of gula melaka varies from golden brown to a rich, dark brown. Gula melaka is extensively used throughout Southeast Asia as a flavoring agent for various culinary delights; rendang for instance, a very popular meat-based curry in Malaysia and Indonesia often includes a pinch of gula melaka. More often however, gula melaka is predominantly used for sweets and desserts. Agar-agar gula melaka is one such dessert.

Gula melaka, being an unrefined form of sugar is generally considered to be healthier than refined sugar since unrefined sugar retains more minerals. Consequently, this dessert could be considered to be relatively healthier than refined-sugar-based desserts.

Good quality thick coconut milk (known as “santan” in Malay) is imperative for a successful outcome. While canned/frozen/UHT coconut milk can be used to make this dessert as is done in modern-day households,  freshly-made coconut milk is strongly recommended, not just to ensure a quality finished product taste-wise and appearance-wise but also for health purposes as fresh is always better than unfresh. Stale coconut milk can curdle when boiled, resulting in a relatively unappetizing finished product, taste-wise and appearance-wise. Coconut milk that is too dilute i.e., the water content is too high, may result in a finished product where the coconut layer is disproportionately too thin.  Hence, it may be necessary to make adjustments to the ratios specified in the recipe depending on the quality of the coconut milk.

Pandan leaves lose their aroma and flavor as they get old. Hence, use only fresh pandan leaves, the fresher the better. The quantity can be adjusted as desired, for a stronger aroma and flavor use more, for a milder version use less.

 

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (about 500ml) water
  • 1 3/4 cup loosely packed agar-agar strands (or as required for the above quantity of water – follow directions on the package)
  • 110 grams – 150 grams (about 1/2 – 3/4 cups loosely packed) crushed gula melaka
  • 2-3 fresh pandan leaves – tied to a knot
  • 1 1/4 cups (about 300ml) thick coconut milk
  • Pinch of salt

 

Method:

In a heavy-bottom pan, combine water, agar-agar and gula melaka.

Over medium heat, bring to a boil.

Lower heat and simmer until agar-agar dissolves completely, stirring continuously.

Remove pandan leaf.

Add pinch of salt to the thick coconut milk.

Pour thick coconut milk into the pan of dissolved agar-agar.

Increase heat to medium-low and bring the liquid to a boil, stirring continously.

Once boiling stop heat immediately.

Pour the mixture into a mould, and leave to set undisturbed.

The agar-agar can be eaten now, but it tastes better when chilled; once cooled completely, place the container in a refrigerator. The agar-agar will separate into to two neat and distinct layers – a rich brown clear layer at the bottom, and an opaque, caramel-colored coconut milk fat layer at the top.

Unmould the agar-agar and cut to neat rectangles. Serve chilled.

Mung Bean Porridge (Bubur Kacang Hijau / Bubur Kacang Ijo)

Bubur Kacang Hijau (sometimes known as “Bubur Kacang Ijo” in Indonesia), is a creamy and comforting sweet mung bean porridge. “Bubur” means “porridge”, “kacang” means “beans” and “hijau” means “green” in the Malay language which is the national language of Indonesia and Malaysia. Although Indonesian Malay and Malaysian Malay are essentially the same in that they are derived from the original Malay language, the two languages have slight differences with some words having different meanings, spelling and syntax.

Like many other dishes such as satay and rendang, this mung bean porridge is a “shared dish” having a place in both Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine although it is more popularly consumed in Indonesia. Often eaten warm, it is an ideal dessert for cold/wintery days although it could also be enjoyed chilled on hot days.

Nourishing mung beans, creamy coconut milk (known as “santan” in Malay) and fragrant pandan leaves are combined and sweetened with an unrefined form of palm sugar (known as “gula jawa” in Indonesia or “gula melaka” in Malaysia) to bring out a dessert that is not just delicious but nutritious as well. Gula jawa or gula melaka not only sweetens but adds a very distinctive flavor which cannot be replaced with modern-day refined sugar. Add gula jawa / gula melaka to your taste, some like the porridge very sweet while some like it mildly sweetened. The coconut milk may curdle when boiled together with the gula jawa / gula melaka so add it after boiling the milk.

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup mung beans
  • Gula jawa / gula melaka – as desired
  • 2-3 pandan leaves – tied to a knot
  • 1 cup thick coconut milk
  • Water as required to cook mung beans
  • 1 cm piece ginger
  • Pinch of salt

Method:

Wash and soak the mung beans in water for at least 12 hours or overnight. Soaking helps soften the beans and reduce cooking time.

Bruise the ginger or pound in a pestle and mortar till bruised but not finely crushed.

Combine the soaked mung beans, ginger, padan leaves and water as required to cook the mung beans.

Cook the beans over medium heat until beans are well cooked and very soft. If it’s too dry, add a bit of water.

Once beans are softened, pour coconut milk, pinch of salt, and bring to a boil over low heat.

Once boiling, stop heat.

To serve, dish out some mung bean porridge into a bowl and sweeten with crushed gula jawa / gula melaka as desired.

Madhupayasa (Milk-rice pudding with honey)

Madhupayasa is a sweetened, creamy rice pudding with a place in ancient history as the offering made by a girl named Sujata to Prince Siddhartha before he attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya (present day Gaya district in the Indian state of Bihar). “Madhu” means “honey” and “payasa” means “milk” in Pali, an ancient language spoken over 2500 years ago in the Indian subcontinent. Pali is no longer spoken but it remains as the main liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism.

Nowadays, myriad variations of sweetened, milky puddings are widely consumed and are generally known throughout India as “kheer” खीर which means “rice pudding” in Hindi.

While recorded recipes of the original madhupayasa are difficult to encounter, it is general knowledge that the dish contained rice boiled in rich, thickened milk (most likely cow’s milk) and sweetened with honey. It is not clear whether spices such as cardamoms, dried fruit such as currants and nuts such as pistachios were added to madhupayasa in the early days as is common practice today when making kheer. The 2000-year-old bhath payasa recipe used by the kitchen at the Jagannatha Temple in Puri, India does feature these flavor enhancers suggesting it may have been used in early madhupayasa dishes as well. Traditionally Indians cooked their meals with earthen pots over charcoal fires, the combination of which added a subtle aroma and flavor to dishes such as madhupayasa. This recipe aims to offer a glimpse into the ancient madhupayasa that was consumed over 2000 years ago such as the one offered to Prince Siddhartha by Sujata.

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup Basmati rice
  • 4 cups fresh cow’s milk (full fat)
  • Honey as desired
  • Currants as desired (optional)
  • 2-3 green cardamom pods (optional) – pound in a pestle and mortar, discard husk retain crushed seeds.
  • Toasted nuts as desired (optional)

 

Method:

Wash and soak the rice for about 15-20 minutes.

Drain and set aside.

Pour the milk into an earthen pot.

Bring the milk to a boil over low flame on hot charcoals (or ordinary stove if charcoals are unavailable).

Continue boiling the milk until the quantity reduces by half.

Add rice and stir well.

Reduce the flame and let the mixture simmer.

Continue simmering until rice is cooked then add honey and crushed cardamom seeds.

Cook till rice is very soft and the dish takes on a thick consistency. Use the spoon to mash the rice.

Stop flame and allow the madhupayasa to cool.

Once cooled give the madhupayasa a stir, transfer to serving bowls.

Garnish with currants and toasted nuts (if using).

Serve at room temperature or even warm (during cold, wintery days), or chilled (during hot, summer days).