You may think that coconut custard pudding sounds quite ordinary or not your thing, but trust me, you haven't tried one of Sri Lanka's best-loved desserts. I'm a self-confessed dessert-aholic and one of my favourite sweets is crème caramel (pudding or purin in Japan). Wattalappan (or wattalappam, the spelling seems to vary) is similar except for the common South Asian ingredients that turn this pudding into something exotic.
Sri Lanka, as befitting a strategic location on the major trade routes in the Indian Ocean, is a melting pot of cultures, peoples, languages and of course, cuisine. Wattalappan is thought to have been brought to Sri Lanka by the Malay people of which there is still a small but significant population in Colombo (there is a Malay Town there). You can also find similar desserts in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, although I had always wrongly assumed that it was the Indian influence which contributed to their popularity. Shows how much I know about my own history, eh?
My mother, who is my favourite cook, also subscribes to the school of easy cooking. When I asked her for the recipe, she replied, 'Oh, it's SO easy. You just need two cups of everything. And some spice.' That's it? 'Yes, that's it.' Mums never give proper recipes, since they can cook with their eyes closed. So I bugged her and at the very least, she gave me a list of ingredients.
Clockwise from the right we have palm sugar or jaggery, six eggs, one can of coconut milk, a stick of cinnamon, five cardamom pods, 10-15 cloves and a handful of cashew nuts. The most important ingredient, apart from the coconut milk, is the palm sugar or kithul jaggery made from the sap of the kithul palm tree.
Sri Lankan jaggery:
As you can see in the pan, is darker and richer than the Malaysian or Indian versions you often get in Asian shops in London. So if you can, do try and get your hands on some Sri Lankan jaggery which now come in handy 350g foil packs. I remember a time when we used to buy them wrapped in newspaper like little cannon balls. Mmm, sugary goodness.
You need to melt the jaggery on low heat into a smooth, gooey, treacly liquid. If you add a little water and caramelise it a little it will taste even better. Just be careful not to burn the jaggery as it's already brown in colour and it may be difficult to know when to take off the heat.
Add the jaggery to the eggs and coconut milk:
And mix until it becomes this nice, even, caramelly colour:
Add the cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Normally you'd crush them into powder to get the aroma going but unless you like bits of spice in your teeth, it's better to either put them in one of those small muslin bags used for bouquet garni or to pop them in whole, which is what we did. You can adjust the amount of cardamom and clove depending on your taste. Also add the cashew nuts at this stage. My mum occasionally forgets, but we forgive her.
Place in a bain-marie.
Cover with foil to steam.
Cook on high heat first so that the water in the bain-marie starts to boil, then lower the heat to medium, constantly checking that all the water doesn't evaporate. Steam for 30-45 minutes or until the custard is set depending on the bowl used (if you use a metal bowl it will take less time compared to a thicker ceramic one).
Don't forget to fish out the spices which will rise to the top before you tuck in! Wattalappan is delicious both hot and cold.