Sri Lankan 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


  • 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



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.



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


  • 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


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.