Watalappam, sometimes spelled “watalappan”, is a sweet Sri Lankan custard that is said to have originated in the small community of Malay Muslims, who came to Sri Lanka during Dutch colonial rule, and is made across most of the island’s ethnic Muslim (Moors) as well as Tamil households. It is a rich pudding made with coconut milk, jaggery or treacle (a type of date palm molasses, known as kithul in Sri Lanka and gur in Bangladesh), eggs, spices and nuts that are native to Sri Lanka.
This dessert is especially popular in the Muslim households within Sri Lanka, where it is often made on special occasions such as Eid and other celebrations. My husband’s family, who are Sri Lankan Muslims originally from the Eastern province of the country, loves this dessert and my mother-in-law makes it for us at least once during our annual visits to Colombo. She makes her wattalapam the traditional way, steamed in a large double boiler until it’s set firmly like a cake, which she then chills, adorns with cashews and cuts into slices for us to enjoy after meals at home. We resist the urge to nap that inevitably follows, but succumb once in a while.
I thoroughly enjoy wattalapam because it combines coconuts (which I am admittedly obsessed with) with the familiar taste of jaggery, a flavor I grew up with in many of my beloved Bangladeshi desserts like gurer payesh (rice pudding) and narkeler naru (coconut truffles). I often recreate it at home in New York, sometimes with my own tweaks to it. I like to tone down the sweetness a bit and balance it with lots of thick coconut cream and a strong hit of cardamom. It combines the classic ingredients and flavors found in Sri Lankan wattalapam but is adapted slightly to achieve a lighter dessert with a a creamier and silkier finish. While the traditional version has a creme caramel or flan-like consistency, texture-wise mine is more akin to French dessert custards, like creme brulee or pots de crème. (If you want to make a more traditional version, which has a texture more reminiscent of Bangladeshi style “pudding” or crème caramel, follow my notes at the end.) I usually also make and serve these in individual portions, molded into little ramekins or pretty espresso cups.
While not quite traditional or the same as what his mother makes, the resident Sri Lankan in our home loves this and it’s also been a hit with guests whenever I’ve served it at my supper club dinners! I’ll have to wait and see if my mother-in-law approves too.
This recipe was featured in a travel edition of ICE Today, a lifestyle and fashion magazine in Bangladesh, printed and published online for their August 2018 issue.
If you make this dish please feel free send me any feedback or to tag me on Instagram (@noorieboorie or #noorieboorie) with a photo, I’d love to see!
Wattalapam is a Sri Lankan dessert, a rich custard made with coconut cream, molasses, eggs, and spices and nuts that are native to the tropical island formerly known as Ceylon. This is a lighter version of the traditional dessert that is slightly creamier, smoother, and a bit less sweet. You may choose to steam it on a stove top or an electric pressure cooker, I've outlined both methods below.
- 1/3 cup melted jaggery (you can substitute molasses or panela)
- 1 cup thick coconut milk or cream (if using canned coconut milk, only use the thick part at the top)
- 1 teaspoon cardamom powder
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Salt, small pinch
- 2 eggs yolks
- 1 whole egg
- 6 cashews, whole or crushed (optional)
- Water, as needed
- Melt jaggery in a pan over medium heat, adding a little bit of water as needed until it is completely liquefied into a thick syrup. Pass the liquid jaggery through a sieve, if needed, to strain any solid lumps or impurities.
- Mix 1/3rd cup of the hot, liquefied jaggery with all of the coconut milk in a bowl.
- Add cardamom powder, vanilla, nutmeg and a pinch of salt to the coconut & jaggery mixture.
- Combine the mixture well with a whisk/fork or using a hand mixer and let it come to room temperature. (Note: This is also a good time to taste the sweetness level, adding more jaggery if you want it sweeter or a bit more coconut milk/cream if it’s too sweet to your taste. As a guideline, at this point the mixture should taste a quite a bit sweeter than you would normally like, adding eggs will eventually balance this out.)
- Once the mixture has cooled, beat in the egg yolks and whites.
- Pour the mixture into a pyrex dish or into six individual ramekins, filling up to 3/4th of the way up to the top of the dish or ramekin. Cover the dish or ramekins tightly with foil.
- Prepare a pot that is large enough to contain your pyrex dish/ramekins inside and fill it with several cups of boiling water.
- Place the pyrex dish/ramekins containing wattalapam mixture inside the bigger pot with hot water. (Note: The amount of hot water should only reach up half way up to the smaller dish/ramekins containing wattalapam mixture. Do not fill with too much water or else you will risk water getting into the dessert.)
- Cover the pot and set it over low-medium heat to steam cook the wattalapam slowly for 45-60 minutes, or until it is set firmly. (Note: you can check whether the wattalapam custard is done by inserting a toothpick or knife, if it comes out clean it’s done cooking.)
- Once it has finished cooking, let the wattalapam come to room temperature and then chill completely in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours, or preferably overnight.
- Serve chilled, garnished with cashews if desired.
- Prepare your pressure cooker by filling it with two cups of water.
- Place a trivet at the bottom and place your wattalapam dish or ramekins on top so that it is not directly touching the bottom of the pressure cooker pot.
- Close the lid and pressure cook on high pressure for 8-10 minutes for large pyrex dish or for 6-8 minutes for individual ramekins. (Note: Cooking time can vary depending on the thickness of the dish you used. If at the end of cooking period your liquids still look runny, cook for additional few minutes.)
- Naturally release pressure before opening the lid.
- Check for doneness. The wattalapam custards should be set firmly but still jiggle a bit. Check by inserting a toothpick, if it comes out clean it is completely cooked.
- Let the wattalapam come to room temperature and then chill completely in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours, or preferably overnight.
- Serve chilled, garnished with cashews if desired.
- To make a thicker/firmer and more traditional wattalapam (that will be a bit more similar to Bangladeshi pudding in texture), add two whole eggs and two egg yolks (instead of one whole egg plus two yolks ) and increase the jaggery syrup in recipe to ½ cup (instead of 1/3rd cup) or more.
- Sweetness of jaggery can vary. If you want a sweeter wattalapam, you can always add a drizzle of jaggery syrup or shaved jaggery on top as garnish before serving.
- If you're using coconut milk from a can, be sure to only use the thick parts that collect at the top (don't shake your can before using!), otherwise your dessert won't achieve a creamy consistency.