The narrative of Sri Lanka’s most cherished sweetener commences with the “Kithul ” or “Fish Tail ” palm tree, the location and a tapper.
Wild Kithul Trees (Fish Tail Palm) are mostly grown in the rainforests and in the intermediate forests in Sri Lanka. Its sap is harvested using archaic methods by families settled at the borders of these forests. The process of converting the collected sap to quality Kithul Jaggery is a technique that requires time, patience, and artistry that comes with years of experience and a knack for balancing yourself on a tree that’s sometimes 13 – 25 meters high with the help of a rope and a lattice.
Where does he extract the sap from you ask? The alchemy is in the Kithul Flower. Only when the palm has reached its maximum height after a period of about 20 years that it begins to blossom; until the last bloom resulting in the palm to die shortly after it produces fruit (the size of a grape) which is very unfortunate.
The extraction of the sap is a long procedure that commences with the tapper climbing up a wooden lattice that he had already tied to one side of the kithul tree. Within several minutes, he is on the top of the nearly 25 meter-tall tree, where the branch with a cluster of flowers that droop down like a bunch of garlands hung in front of a temple. He ties a jute sack or curls the cluster with a jute rope to keep it in place and proceeds to make sharp incisions at the base of a cluster of flowers; he sets the pot to collect droplets of sap trickling down from it.
The tapper collects the sap into the pot over several days from the palm flower just before it starts to mature. Just after straining the sap is boiled down over an open wood fire until it reduces to ⅓ of the quantity to a sticky and intensely sweet brown syrup to the color and thickness of bee honey. This is kithul syrup, or kithul pani, as it’s called by the locals. He can produce 6 – 7 bottles (1x750ml) of kithul treacle from one branch of sap.
This treacle at its purest is used widely in Sri Lankan cuisine. It is also further boiled down and poured into coconut shells to make the unique block shape of hakuru/karupatti or fresh organic jaggery in English. These blocks are further smashed to transform into jaggery powder which is used in cuisines to enhance flavour and also used in Sri Lanka’s indigenous medicine called Ayurveda.