The jaggery wrapped in a variety of smooth Kenda leaves.
The golden sugar of the kithul palm adds a consumate sweetness to life in Sri Lanka
Words Daleena Samara and Madhawa Nagahawatte Photography Rasika Surasena
Sri Lankans with a sweet tooth will tell you that there is no better sweetener than kithul jaggery. This unrefined sugar, prepared from the treated sap of the graceful kithul or fishtail palm (Caryota urens), is the best of the country's original sweeteners - soft, honeyed and healthy. Kithul jaggery's two local contenders, coconut palm jaggery and palmyrah jaggery, cannot match its distinctive sweetness. White refined sugar is a pale imitation.
The fishtail palm, called kithul in Sinhala and koondalpanai in Tamil, belongs to the family Caryota urens, a native of tropical Asia. It flourishes in Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar and Nepal. Growing to heights of 20 metres, it proliferates in the luxuriant forested areas of Sri Lanka's low-country wet zone, especially in the Sabaragamuwa Province and in mixed species perennial gardens in the central highlands.
For lovers of sweets, it is the kithul flower that holds the magic
For lovers of sweets, it is the kithul flower that holds the magic. It is only when the palm has reached its maximum height after a period of about 20 years that it begins to blossom; florets bearing budding cascades of flowers that will eventually turn into hard cherry-sized fruit, begin to appear at the topmost intersection of branch and trunk. New blooms progressively arrive on the lower branches, until the appearance of the last bloom on the lowest branch sounds the death knell for the palm, which dies shortly after it produces fruit.
Sri Lanka fell into the kithul palm's honeypot centuries ago. The palm is mentioned in numerous historical records including the Ummagga Jathaka. The islanders learned early that they could harvest the flow of sugary sap, called thelijja in Sinhalese, in the floret and turn it into a heady liquor called toddy, or boil it down into a delicious treacle or jaggery (hakuru in Sinhalese).
They refined the art of making jaggery that they were able to prepare five different varieties of the sweet: sudu (white) hakuru, a rare, soft and sweet pale jaggery made of refined sap; the rock-like wax or iti hakuru, prepared with slightly fermented sap; madol hakuru, which is soft and easily soluble; the grainy weli hakuru, traditionally prepared by pouring treacle into a pouch made of areca nut leaves and drying it over a fireplace, and the very common kithul hakuru, infused with subtle woody and smoky flavours.
Kithul jaggery is a food fit for royalty. It is said that a certain monarch from the Kandyan period had a special fondness for sudu hakuru.
An old man famed for his sweet and soft sudu hakuru was tasked with keeping the King happy with a supply of his favourite sweet. One day, the King asked him how he was able to prepare such delicious sudu hakuru. The man answered: "Oh, King, the hakuru is prepared on a full moon night, under the shelter of a white sheet and on a floor covered with white, in a golden pot, over a fire of white sandalwood and stirred with a silver spoon."
Intrigued, the King disguised himself as a commoner and visited the man's house situated in a jungle. He found the man preparing the hakuru in a simple mud hut. Dressed in a simple sarong, he was stirring the liquid with a spoon made of coconut shell over an ordinary wood fire.
When the King revealed his identity, the man trembled. He fell on his knees and said, "May you attain Buddhahood, Oh King... for is it not said, that everything is but an illusion."
Pleased with the man's reply, the King pardoned him and was able to enjoy a continuous supply of sudu hakuru. Like the old man, Upali Ranjith, a professional tapper for 30 years, lives in a humble home in a village bordering the Sinharaja Forest. He makes a living tapping clusters of privately-owned trees deep in the forest. In return, he gets a day's wages and two thirds of the thelijja that he collects from the trees.
His wife transforms this produce into jaggery or treacle. She boils the watery thelijja into a thick syrup in a large pan, adds crushed herbs into it, and sets it aside for a few days. The liquid forms into a thick dark gold treacle. To make jaggery, she boils the treacle three times, then pours it into coconut shells that have a little hole at one end. The mixture hardens in a day and she is able to pop it out of the shell by pushing it through the hole in the coconut. She wraps the jaggery in a special smooth leaf called "hakuru kenda". The process is not as easy as it sounds, because the trick in making the best hakuru is to know how to stir it and when to take it off the fire.
Kithul tapping is a hazardous occupation. The palm grows very tall, and its smooth bark has little grip. In the past, the task was dominated by a special skilled caste of tappers who made a living from it. Today, it is a general occupation of villagers dwelling on the outskirts of forests. Often, a village would have a small group of tappers who tap all the palms in the neighborhood. In recent years, government initiatives have been set in place to invigorate the industry and get more rural folk to take up tapping as an occupation.
A skilled tapper respects his trees. He would never tap the first flower of the palm, because its seeds make the best kithul saplings and the palm must be propagated. He also cleans out the ridges on the trunk left behind by branches as a mark of respect. He twists a ladder of bamboo fibre around the tree to help his climb and erects a platform beside the flowers. He begins tapping with the second flower from the top when it is about two months old, priming it by warming its base, removing part of its sheath, and tying a poultice of herbs on it to stimulate the flow of thelijja. He makes a deep incision into the flower, which will then, he says, "shed a tear" because it is losing the nutrients it has collected from the sky and earth. He sets up a pot at the base of the floret to collect the thelijja. A master tapper can make a single flower produce thelijja for two months, and each palm will yield up to seven flowers in a lifetime.
Tapping is done in either the morning or the evening, but never at noon when the supply of sap drops. The supply increases during the rains. Often, wild animals and birds help themselves to some of it; Upali does not mind this because he says they have to eat as well.
Sri Lanka's indigenous system of medicine - ayurveda - treats kithul jaggery as a very rich food, which can make you gain weight in a healthy way. Ayurveda posits that if you are thin and weak, you will gain weight by eating kithul jaggery, but never gain weight in excess. Rich in calcium, minerals, salts and fibre, this sweet is slower to digest, thus it doesn't provide the rush of energy that refined sugar delivers. Like its South American counterpart, panela, it is said to be a source of iron and vitamins.
Kithul jaggery is the sweetener of Sri Lankan gastronomy. It is kithul jaggery and no other that takes pride of place as the perfect sweet accompaniment to the auspicious dish of milk rice on festive occasions. It is the sugar substitute to be nibbled on with a cup of herbal tea, the sweetener with congee and the honey in the rich dessert wattalapam. More recently, it has become the flavour of modern sweet treats like cake and ice cream, available in large supermarket chains and confectionery stores.
Undoubtedly, kithul hakuru is the nobility of Sri Lanka's original sugars. From forest to gourmet dining, it has marked a trail of incomparable sweetness across the land.