November 2011


Sweet Tropical Christmas
November 2011




Bibikkan is moist and textured, soft and chewy, with just the right amount of sweetness to make it irresistible

Delicious treats like bibikkan and king coconut wine, give Christmas in Sri Lanka an exotic glow

Words: Daleena Samara | Photography: Rasika Surasena

Christmas sweeps across tropical Sri Lanka, speckling sunny shopping malls and even small roadside boutiques with cotton snow window dressing, reindeer cutouts, and images of Santa Claus. Christmas trees make their way into malls and homes. Although Christians comprise just seven percent of the island's population, the season is celebrated by all.

Nowhere is the Christmas spirit stronger than in the island's kitchens, prompting cooks everywhere to reach for their very special Christmas recipes. Coconut adds a tropical essence to 
Sri Lanka's Christmas. The island's cuisine is steeped in the flavours of the graceful Cocos nucifera, that makes up its coastal fringe of palms. No meal is complete and no festival celebrated unless it is seasoned with coconut. Christmas is no exception.

The crème de coco makes its way into Christmas lunches and dinners, while its flesh grated, honeyed and spiced gives festive sweetmeats a distinct homegrown flavour. Sweet coconut water is brewed into a golden wine.

The queen of Christmas coconut treats is undoubtedly bibikkan, a rich, dark moist cake made of shredded coconut, palm treacle and semolina that drives the sweet tooth wild. Bibikkan takes pride of place alongside other loved seasonal preparations such as Dutch Breudher and Poffertjes.

Its lavish assortment of ingredients include grated jaggery or treacle, melted in a little water, heated, then cooled and mixed into a batter with roasted semolina. Chopped dates, winter melon and ginger preserve, candid peel and cashew nuts are added to it, along with crushed fennel, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon and a dash of salt. A beaten egg is folded in before the mixture is popped into the oven. The ingredients give this cake a delectably moist chewiness not replicated in the rest of the season's spread of fruity sweetmeats; not even the glorious Christmas cake.

No one is certain where Bibikkan came from. Some say it originated from the country's coastal areas where the Portuguese who colonised the island in 1505, stayed till 1658. They give all credit to the Portuguese. Locally, Bibikkan was once known as ‘poranu appa', a traditional baked bread, alluding to indigenous beginnings. Today, it is also known as ‘pol' or coconut cake.

Little is known about how this delicious coconut cake came to be called Bibikkan, although the name echoes Bibingkang, a rice flour cake made with coconut milk and, sometimes, grated coconut, traditionally served near churches in the Philippines on Christmas Day.

One can only imagine how the island's wealth of ingredients inspired a creative cook to experiment with various combinations of local ingredients, like the local palm treacle, grated coconut, dry fruit and spices, until the humble rice flour cake metamorphosed into the queenly Bibikkan, a perfect dusky brown slab of luscious cake that was so irresistible, it became one of Sri Lanka's very own festive offerings, more textured than Christmas cake, sweet but not overpoweringly so, and fragrant with spices. Bibikkan is infrequent, only making an appearance on festive and religious occasions like New Year's night and Sinhala and Tamil New Year. And of course, Christmas. The long wait for this delicious indulgence makes it all the more desirable.

And to wash down the crème de la crème of native cakes, what better than a festive wine made of the purest of coconut waters, the golden orange king coconut. The coconut palm flavours a number of local alcoholic beverages, such as the intense arrack and the mild mannered toddy. 
For Christmas, of course, there has to be something very special, and so there is king coconut or thambili wine.

As with Bibikkan, it is said to be a colonial import, introduced by the Dutch. This delicate wine is usually prepared months in advance in the family kitchen, following family recipes. To brew it using at least half a dozen prime quality king coconuts, you need a small mound of sugar, some yeast, a dozen limes, generous quantities of cardamoms, cloves and cinnamon, vanilla essence and red hot chilli peppers. The yeast is dissolved in lime juice, added to the coconut water and left to ferment for about two weeks. Then burnt sugar, chillies, spices and vanilla are added to it and it is put aside for two more weeks, strained through muslin and bottled. A few diehard winemakers bury it underground for as long as two years, to get perfect results.

The caramelised sugar casts a fine golden reddish brown hue; light and cloudy at the beginning but settling into a gleaming "red" with time. 
The mix of ingredients gives it an exotic blend of tastes; sweetly inspiring, light and mellow, spicy but tangy with a softly hot sharp edge. The spices and its appearance at Christmas lend king coconut wine an ambiance evocative 
of mulled wine, to be enjoyed at a warm gathering of family and friends. But be warned: Some lazy winemakers take the easy route by adding a dash of arrack to hasten fermentation, a practice frowned upon by the puritans of the art. If you want to try just one glass of golden king coconut wine, make sure it's the real thing.

The crowning treat: a glass of rusty red coconut wine and a slice of Bibikkan to add sweet cheer to Christmas, only in Sri Lanka.

Being a sweet wine, king coconut wine can be enjoyed after a meal, 
as dessert wine or an accompaniment to dessert. The crowning treat: a glass of rusty red coconut wine and a slice of Bibikkan to add sweet cheer to Christmas, only in Sri Lanka.

 

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    King coconuts (thambili), the royalty of coconuts and the sweetest of coconut waters, make this wine a delicious treat.

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  • image01
    image01

    King coconuts (thambili), the royalty of coconuts and the sweetest of coconut waters, make this wine a delicious treat.

    Prev Next
  • image01
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    Glass of wine, bibikkan and cashew nuts – what better way to toast the festive season.

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