Watalappam is a traditional coconut dessert enjoyed in Sri Lanka.
This luscious custard is spiced-up with cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, often with a hint of vanilla, and a smattering of nuts or dried fruits. The taste reminds me of a spicy, aromatic Indian cup of chai. But cold, coconutty, and soft! As with all recipes, everyone has their very own version. The Tamils make it different than the Singhalese, and the Muslims have another delightful variation.
I invented a vegan version of the coconut custard, and I added some variations of my own– including fresh (or frozen) berries. I often top it with dark, rich, sweet coconut blossom syrup (AKA palm syrup) which is extremely popular in Sri Lanka – and recently gaining popularity in Europe and the Americas. Sometimes I top the custard with blackstrap molasses or dark agave syrup, or some fresh fruit and nuts and maybe a bit of homemade fruit syrup, like I do with my vanilla muffins (also in The Lotus and the Artichoke – SRI LANKA cookbook.)
There’s actually a good story with the first time I had Watalappam in Sri Lanka. It highlights the need to stay cool, and remember that how we react in unexpected situations always influences how others perceive not just us as people, but whatever groups of people with whom we are associated – as foreign tourists, guests, citizens of particular countries, …and as vegetarians and vegans. In my travels, I try to be modest and respectful, and traveling vegan certainly comes with challenges here and there. Usually it’s much easier than others imagine, but I guess experience, a fair amount of luck and communication are all important factors.
One night I was invited to dinner at home with a Sri Lankan family in the small, charming town of Midigama.
Midigama is on the south west coast of Sri Lanka, and known for several great surfing spots, and I wanted to check it out. Sharani and her husband, a local tuk-tuk driver, lived with their two small children – and a funny green parrot that could talk – on a narrow, unpaved road a few minutes walk from the beach. She cooked for the better part of an afternoon, and by time dinner was ready, we were super hungry and totally curious what kind of deliciousness awaited us. Everything smelled fantastic! And then dinner was served: 5 Sri Lankan curries… including stir-fried Bonchi (green beans), spicy sautéed Brinjal (eggplant/aubergine), Carrot Curry, Dal (lentil) Curry, Soymeats Curry, and of course papadam, rice, and a simple salad of cucumbers and tomatoes.
After we finished eating, Sharani asked, “Do you like Watalappam? Sweets? Want to try?”
I was immediately curious, and asked her to describe it. “Made with coconut. Like a pudding. But very special flavors!” I tried once more, politely, to find out how it was made. “With eggs? Milk?” “No, no. Coconut!” “Butter?” “No, no. Coconut. And sugar! Palm syrup.” At this, she slid her chair back from the table, dashed to the kitchen, and returned with a chilled tray covered with plastic foil, which she was peeling back as she walked. Continue reading