Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Tapping a sweet heritage
Chanchala Gunewardene’s gourmet enterprise, Kimbula Kithul, with treacle from Matara, is proving to be quite a hit
If Matara has a mascot, it would be the crocodile- the gentle, playful kimbula of old
kavi who teased the ferrymen in the river but would never dream of harming anyone. When Chanchala Gunewardene wanted an icon for her new gourmet kithul treacle brand, it was the friendly reptile she chose. With the delicious, satisfying alliteration in the newly coined name- Kimbula Kithulthey were ready to take Matara treacle to the world.
Chanchala’s mother was from Matara, and some of her most cherished food memories are of breakfasting on banana fritters ladled thickly with local kithul pani- her grandmother’s special recipe. Much later, Chanchala would realise that the treacle bought from the supermarket was a much inferior saccharine version of the pure treacle she had tasted. The mass product, she discovered, is heavily diluted and involves refined sugar.
This happens, of course, because kithul treacle is a precious commodity. It takes 8 to 10 litres of kitul sap (called ‘ thelijja’) to make 1 litre of kitul treacle. Making this treacle is a sweet secret that Sri Lanka alone is privy to. Although the tree, Caryota
urens, fans out with its flamboyant frond all across the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, few uses have been evolved for the tree and the flower.
The story begins in the lush landscapes of the south and central heartlands, where the magnificent ostrich feather-like fronds spill out among the thick greenery. The breadwinner of the family does the perilous climb to tap the product and the whole family gets involved in the production.
Working as a communications specialist for Bates Strategic Alliance, Chanchala was inspired to do this project by the enthusiasm and talent that was beginning to shine forth in home-based entrepreneurship in and around Colombo. Eager to come up with a brand of pure kithul, Chanchala liaised with tappers- smallholders who work on the trees in their backyards- and Kimbula Kithul made its first appearance at the Saturday pop-up at Good Market in December 2017.
In a little over one year, Kimbula has made waves. Even people from Matara, the homeland of treacle, have been asking for the brand, and consumers in Matale and Kalpitiya have been requesting consignments.
With natural kithul, the most fascinating factor is that the flavour profile can range from the sweet floral to the woody and smoky- depending on the maturity of the flower and the infusion by firewood. Each bottle however comes sealed with Chanchala’s approval- as she tastes what goes into every one of them.
While the young children and the sweet toothed prefer floral flavours, chefs go for the more woody or smoky, with their exotic tang perfect for inventive dishesfrom meat marinades to sushi. Indeed select Colombo restau- rants Nihonbashi, Kaema Sutra, Ministry of Crab, Cafe Kumbuk and Ceylan Creperie among them now depend on Kimbula kithul.
With a low glycaemic index (meaning less increase in the level of glucose in the blood) of 27, Kithul treacle is also a healthier substitute for sugar.
Chanchala, with a first degree in English and a Master’s in communication, took to the branding of Kimbula with natural alacrity. Storytelling is very much part of the brand.
In Facebook and Instagram, they have been running quirky, humorous and compellingly fun-pun campaigns. With only Facebook and Instagram marketing they reached over 500 bottles as of December. Festive occasions are celebrated with special bottles. For Christmas the kimbula dons a Santa hat, for Valentine he gets all amorous and come Pride he will proudly sport a rainbow of colours. Bespoke mini bottles are also done- for example wedding editions with two kimbulas dressed in the suit and trousseau sported by the couple.
The brand has built an affectionate bond with the customers- who send over photos of what they confect using the treacle.
Bates too has been wonderfully supportive of their ‘ kithul kella’ as Chanchala has been fondly monikered. The crocodile and his jaunty get-ups are designed in-house and with their support Kimbula Kithul has entered the final round of Venture Engine, the annual entrepreneurship program, where they are the only non-tech startup.
Chanchala looks forward to Kimbula growing bigger- for the taste of this unique treacle to seep into the palates of sophisticated connoisseurs around the world.
Kimbula Kithul is available at Good Market, Barefoot, Milk & Honey and other stores listed in their Facebook page and on Instagram (@kimbulakithul). Island-wide online deliveries are handled by justgoodness.co.