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Making Sweets. SO MANY SWEETS.

SRI LANKA | Friday, 31 July 2015 | Views [878]

Learning to cook from people is one of the greatest privileges I know. Watching experienced hands take ingredients and transform them into dishes is something I’ll never tire of, and more often than not, my cooking teachers and I haven’t shared the same language. Like in Sri Lanka, where I was fortunate enough to be taught how to cook Sri Lankan food on many occasions, including an entire afternoon dedicated to my favourite things: sweets.



A friend of our guide welcomed us into his home, along with his wife, sister-in-law, and several more of their friends. Typically, these women get together before a wedding or special occasion, and over several days make hundreds of traditional sweets to be enjoyed at the gathering. That day, they very graciously showed up and squeezed all that work into one afternoon. Just for us.



We spent most of our time moving between the kitchen and an outdoor area with an open wood-burning fire. Working together, these five women were a model of efficiency, a tightly-knit team happy share their secrets. For each sweet that was prepared, one woman became the obvious leader, with the others ready to support her in every way possible. She need only hold out her hand, and a spoon would be ready; the fire, which fuelled most of the cooking process, never lacked wood; and every dish was washed and put away as soon as it was no longer needed. I was in awe. Absolute, dumbstruck awe.



We (and I use the term ‘we’ loosely, since they did most of the work) prepared five different sweets that afternoon: mung kavum, undu walalu, welithalapa, aluwa, and kokis. Most, in one way or another, involved freshly-prepared coconut and white rice, which was pounded down into flour with an enormous pestle and mortar.  



The process for mung kavum was painstaking: it first involved making a dough of mung bean flour, white rice flour, and black treacle (which is sort of like the maple syrup of Sri Lanka, made from the sap of the kithul palm). Once formed, the dough was rolled out, then carefully cut out into diamond shapes.

Next, a batter was made with egg, rice flour, a pinch each of salt and turmeric, and coconut milk.

Each diamond was dipped in the batter, and deep-fried in coconut oil over the wood fire.



Next up was undu walalu, which reminded me of the honey-soaked sweets in Greece. First, a dough was made from a paste of soaked and ground urad dhaal beans, rice, and thick coconut water. I was informed the consistency should be “that of a well mashed potato.” Salt was added to taste, and then the dough was spooned, about a cup at a time, into a special round cloth with a hole at its centre that was reinforced with extra stitching. Into a pan of hot coconut oil, the dough was squeezed out in rings, and fried until a deep golden brown.

The coils were then transferred to a pot of hot treacle, where they soaked up the honey-like syrup. Once  cooled and ready to eat, undu walalu are crunchy, oily, sticky, sweet, and AMAZING. I ate one too many, and got a headache. It was totally worth it.



Welithalapa was another recipe that required multiple steps. First, pittu (a mixture of scraped coconut, salt, and rice flour) was prepared. The pittu was steamed in a basket over a pot of water, then broken into small pieces.

Next, sugar was caramelized in a pan, joined by treacle, cardamom, maduru (sweet cumin), and water, and stirred until the mixture began to thicken. Once the pittu was stirred in, the welithalapa was scooped out onto a banana leaf-lined basket, and allowed to cool before being cut into squares.

Aluwa are similar, but they’re made with ground cashews, and are pressed into a wooden mold to create shapes.



The most fascinating sweet preparation to watch was the kokis. A batter of coconut milk, rice flour, turmeric, salt, and an egg was mixed up while a pan of coconut oil was heated over the fire. Next came the very delicate process of frying the cookies: a metal mold in the shape of a butterfly, hanging from a long wooden stick, was first dipped into the hot oil, carefully lowered into the batter, and then put back into the oil.

When the batter began frying, and the cookie slipped from the metal mold. In order for this to happen seamlessly, the oil must be the right temperature, the mold must be heated up just enough (but not too much!), and the batter cannot go past the top of the butterfly design, lest it fry around the mold, rather than slip from it. It requires a great deal of skill and patience to fry koki properly, since they can only be made one at a time. The result are these gorgeous, lacy, incredibly thin fried cookies, which can be eaten in copious amounts since they’re not sweet.



We ate the desserts all afternoon as they were prepared, and then again with tea once the ‘buffet’ was ready. Just as I began worrying I’d tip over from fullness, our very generous hosts insisted we stay for dinner, so we followed up our dessert with a very large meal of curry. I left stuffed, smelling of smoke and treacle, and forever grateful to this family and their friends for sharing their knowledge with me.



Tags: coconut, cooking lesson, dessert, hill country, passport and plate, sri lanka, sweets, traditional food, world nomads

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