Several years ago, on my first-ever visit to Sri Lanka, I remember enjoying one particularly memorable meal at Beach Wadiya, a glorified seaside shack in Colombo. An apt introduction to the unhurried pace of life in the island I would eventually call home, the meal stretched over several hours and multiple courses of freshly prepared seafood. But the fondest memory I have of that day is of the final course: a generous scoop of chilled yogurt, sweetened with a drizzle of what I thought was honey. It reminded me of my childhood fixation with curd sweetened with sugar. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that the simple dessert was in fact a national obsession, and that the syrup was not honey at all. It was kithul treacle, one of Sri Lanka’s best-loved secrets.
Derived from the sap of the fishtail palm (locally known as kithul) that grows widely all over the Indian subcontinent, kithul treacle is a smoky, amber-coloured sweetener that could be considered Sri Lanka’s answer to maple syrup. It tastes flowery, like single flora honey, yet not as cloying, and with an undertone of warm spice like that of mulled wine. The secret of its unique flavour rests in the fact that it is produced from the sap collected from its flowers. Like other palm products from the subcontinent, the supply of kithul treacle hinges on the dexterity of skilled tappers, who climb trees that can grow over 20 feet high. Armed with traditional wisdom about when the trees bloom (only once in their life) and form sap, tappers make a cut at the base of the stalk bearing clusters of flowers. A pot is tied to the tree to collect the precious sap, which is then thickened and purified over a wood fire before being bottled.
Like the Bengali winter favourite nolen gur, a toffee-like liquid jaggery extracted from the wild date palm, Sri Lankan kithul is also a much-loved local delicacy. A complex and flavourful substitute for sugar, kithul is a quintessential part of Sri Lankan sweets such as pani walalu, a squiggly, jalebi-like sweet made of urad dal and rice which is dunked in treacle, and konda kevum, a spongy, deep-fried cake like the South Indian appe or paniyaram, flavoured with treacle instead of sugar. Kithul is now a staple in my pantry, I drizzle the treacle generously over pancakes or sliced strawberries for dessert. And when visiting friends ask me what to take back home, I urge them to tuck a bottle of kithul into their suitcase—in my book, it is a souvenir of Sri Lanka like no other.
Appeared in the April 2016 issue as “Sweetening the Deal”.
Kithul treacle is available year-round at most major supermarkets. However, commercial brands are often diluted and taste sugary. Good-quality treacle is expensive, but worth the premium. Outlets of Laksala, the government handicrafts emporium, and the Good Market store in Colombo are reliable places to find good quality treacle. At Laksala, the premium variety sells at LKR2,400/₹1,140 for 300 gm.
Vidya Balachander is a food and travel writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Having called Mumbai home for several years, she recently decided to go on a real-life adventure. Colombo is the first pit stop of many she hopes to make in the years to come.