The Revival of Sri Lanka's Kithul Palm Treacle

The sweet vegan syrup is evolving from a dessert sweetener to a condiment in savory dishes and boozy drinks.

Zinara Rathnayake

November 12, 2020

The Revival of Sri Lanka's Kithul Palm Treacle
Buffalo milk curd topped with granola and kithul syrup. (Photo: Karvin Fernando)

During Sinhala and Tamil New Year, which fall in April each year, my mother makes aluwa, a Sri Lankan sweet. She mixes roasted rice flour with heated kithul peni treacle — a thick, dark brown, sweet syrup extracted from the kithul palm tree, a fishtail palm that grows in the tropical jungles in South India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. Crushed cashews go in for the crunch. Cardamom makes the mix fragrant. Rich, nutty smells waft from the kitchen as she lays the mixture flat and cuts the sweet into diagonal pieces. The secret to my mother’s aluwa, she says, is kithul treacle.

For this treacle, kithul farmers in Sri Lanka climb the kithul palm tree, and make notches on the heads of the young and tender flower clusters bowing down to collect the trickling sap. This method of collecting the sap is called tapping. Once the tappers collect the sap, they boil it over a fire until the sap turns into a viscous, honey-like liquid. Pure kithul treacle has earthy, smoky, or floral notes, and sometimes a subtle umami flavor. While sugar became popular as the go-to sweetening agent, kithul treacle remained a standard fixture during dessert time, especially during family lunches, to enjoy with buffalo milk curd served in a clay pot.