What makes up a Maltese plate? As a relatively unknown cuisine, that’s a question a lot of us in the UAE probably can’t answer. Is it pasta and pizza due to a proximity to Italy? Mediterranean fare of fish and legumes and fruits and vegetables due to its location? Generic hot dogs and English breakfasts?
In fact, a typical Maltese plate is a mash-up of all of these flavours – a marriage of various tastes due to the country’s history of being invaded by many cultures. But there’s always a focus on letting the ingredients shine on their own. It comprises dishes that go from simple to the complicated – from the rustic crunchy-outer soft-interior bread Ftira to the country’s national dish rabbit stew, slow cooked to perfection. It comprises rustic food and seasonal ingredients based on a lot of vegetables and fish. All dishes full of flavour and flair that leave their mark, despite being surrounded by heavyweight cuisines.
Various occupiers – and thus foods – have passed through Malta. A cuisine that’s an outcome of the many civilisations that have occupied the islands over the centuries, Maltese food is an eclectic mix.
– Maltese cuisine
These flavours were recently brought into focus when Malta’s Tourism Authority collaborated with Heritage Malta’s ‘Taste History’ project for a year-long initiative called ‘Taste History Meets the Stars’. Under the project, three Michelin-starred restaurants in Malta – UnderGrain, Noni and De Mondion – offered up a variety of dishes with a historical link to the location of the restaurants or the restaurants itself, alongside the fascinating stories behind each dish. And Food from gulfnews.com caught up with these culinary Maltese stars to get a perspective on the cuisine.
On the menu were dishes such as Papiri ‘Gentile Selection’ with Crispy Chicken Wings, Parmesan, Yeast, and Raw King Oyster Mushrooms at Under Grain, a dish based on archival evidence referring to the consumption of pasta at the nearby Dominican Priory. Duo of Local Hunted Rabbit at De Mondion in Mdina linked to the hunting of hares in the surrounding woodlands during the time of the Knights. And Malefanti Pasta, Octopus Tagine at Noni, associated with the 300-year-old baking tradition of lower Valletta, where the restaurant is situated.
We spoke to Chef Jonathan Brincat from Noni and Chef Kevin Bonello at De Mondion to find out more about what makes up Maltese cuisine.
Various occupiers – and thus foods – have passed through Malta. A cuisine that’s an outcome of the many civilisations that have occupied the islands over the centuries, Maltese food is an eclectic mix. Brincat talks of a diverse history due to being ruled by “almost every nation possible, which reflects in our food, with influences from Middle Eastern to Mediterranean, and modern European such as French – and British.” Think ratatouille, traditional English breakfasts, tea with milk.
He mentions huge Italian influences (pasta, pizza and kanolli or the local version of the Italian treat with ricotta filling).
And northern African ones too. “We’re not a very hot or cold kind of climate like the northern part of Europe or African countries where there’s a very drastic difference in temperatures,” Bonello says. “When it comes to vegetables, fruits and fish, it’s all very much in season.”
The three ingredients that underlie most Maltese dishes are olive oil, tomatoes that grow abundantly especially in summer, and garlic, says Brincat.
There’s a heavy reliance on locally available produce and seasonal ingredients. Bonello says Maltese cuisine is based a lot on fruits and vegetables, and being surrounded by the Mediterranean sea, “in season there’s a super selection of fish and shellfish, some great olive oil and lemons. We’re also super proud of our sourdough”.
An example is Lampuki, a type of fish found in and around the waters of Malta and a popular staple during autumn, eaten in a pie, grilled, or in a garlicky sauce.
Bonello also says per capita Malta has the highest population that eats rabbit, in the form of rich stews called Fenkata. “We also have very good goat’s cheese.”
The Arab influences are seen in the almond flavoured pastries and spices, and Brincat also mentions the use of citrus, “which grows very well here and we use it a lot. Think bitter oranges for marmalade or preserves, and lemons preserved, which is used in the Morocco-based tagine, of course”.
He says a staple is bread, which is found everywhere, especially in the capital Valletta, “where we have 450-500-year-old ovens with a base of Maltese rock that cook up a special recipe bread that’s light and crunchy on the outside. And then we have tomatoes, which are a staple in the Maltese diet as well”.
Then there’s the Pastizzi, a staple street food with fillings of goat’s cheese, ricotta or pea. So popular a dish, that the English phrase ‘selling like hot cakes’ is in Malta ‘selling like pastizzi’.“It’s made in an oval shape, with different shapes for pea and cheese,” says Bonello. “The dough is made of a type of puff pastry, and it might not be very healthy but is a tradition every Sunday after mass. Or if you’re going out with friends, you have a tea and pastizzi in street food stalls.”
Bonello mentions typical dishes such as ricotta pies, pide pies and octopus. “Plus we have great snails, so we make a stew with snails – different snails than the French as they are more delicate and have more of a depth in flavour. They are cooked in aromatics with onions and potatoes, and served with fresh lemon, olive oil and local vinegar.”
“No one coming to our island is going to get bored,” Bonello says. “There’s so much to do, see and eat.”
Traditions and techniques
It might be a small country, but Malta still holds its own against world-famous neighbouring cuisines. Cooking techniques commonly used include a lot of braising, stews, soups, and ‘low and slow dishes’.
The techniques are the same as cuisines in the region, says Bonello. “It’s a lot of the freshest product in its top season. For instance, in my menu you wouldn’t find a salmon as it’s not local [Malta mostly serves up frozen Norwegian salmon]. A lot of us chefs keep it simple and natural, while using funky, modern techniques to elevate dishes and keep it interesting to diners.”
Traditions abound, and desserts with it, though the Maltese menu doesn’t carry a lot of sweet offerings. During the Feast of St Joseph (which is celebrated all over the island of Malta at different times), Brincat says a lot of zeppoli is eaten, a fried pastry filled with figs, ricotta and sugar and drizzled with honey and nuts. During Lent there’s the Kwarezimal, a biscuit made with nuts, honey, orange blossom water, sugar and almonds. During Christmas, qagħaq tal-għasel or honeyed rings filled with treacle.
At homes, a lot of in-season widow’s soup is cooked – a traditional Maltese soup named because it used to be made by poor widows with the cheapest vegetables. The soup is usually made with pumpkin and the vegetables in season, then sheep’s cheese, and a slow-poached egg on top.
With home cooking a huge part of the cuisine, Brincat talks of flavours that are more bold and hearty. “In restaurants they’re more refined, and while you get the idea of the traditional dish, they are made lighter and incorporate more modern techniques.”
Brincat says while there are not many regional variations due to Malta being such a small country, (it is the world’s 10th smallest country in area), there are a few differences from the North to the centre and South. “The major differences are from Malta to Gozo, the sister island.” He cites the pastizzi as an example, usually filled with ricotta, but in Gozo with sheep cheese, with peas in them or fava beans.
With greasy-and-tasty finds like pastizzi, Malta has often fielded accusations of being a heavy cuisine. Bonello disagrees. “Well, if you’re taking the English breakfast as an example, the British brought it to us [during their rule] – but if anyone says Maltese cuisine is unhealthy I say that’s a bit cheeky as the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest you can have in the world, a balanced one full of fruits, vegetables, fish and not that much red meat. Produce that if you source properly, they can be part of a great diet.”
Brincat strikes a similar tone. “I don’t believe it’s unhealthy, because the same goes for every cuisine, too much of anything is unhealthy, and the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest you can follow – there is fast food in Malta, but it depends on your diet preference.”
Ancient dishes, new plating
With an economy very much based on tourism, Bonello says while keeping to traditions, it’s also necessary to be able to cater to tourists in Malta. “Our population is 600,000 but we get about 2.4 million tourists every year. We have to cater to different kinds of diets. But we are trying to highlight our traditional cuisine and explain it. Why we really believe our cuisine should be out there. But at the same time, we also need to be able to serve tourists.”
Brincat says the association with Visit Malta helped in reintroducing ancient recipes and interpreting them in modern ways. “My dish is of a pasta they used to do 500 years ago. We went through research, ingredients, methods and are talking of the story behind it. Here in Valleta they used to have a lot of grain and when the Pope used to visit they used to make this special kind of pasta that takes three days as you need to roll it by hand and cook it in broth. So it used to be considered a delicacy and they used to serve it with chicken broth. Here we do it with octopus Bolognese and we make some roasted octopus with it.”
Bonello says before being declared a republic in 1974, the staple street food in Malta was hot dog and pies, resembling what it was under the British empire. “But in the past 8 to 10 years, chefs like me are doing a lot of research, getting ancient recipes, finding out what the nobles used to cook on the island. Finding out from where they used to source their products, about the time the French lived here – and that brings us to our real roots rather than the one the British have brought to us.”
He cites the sourdough baked in traditional ovens as an example. “I’ve been dabbling in the fermentation process and how it affects culture locally in past centuries, and it quite surprised me to know that a kind of fermentation used to happen at those times, so it’s important to get those recipes reinterpreted.”
Brincat says with Malta being such a small country, there’s not a lot of word of mouth, leading to Maltese cuisine not ending up on the world’s plates a lot. He is encouraged that this is changing. “Lately we are getting recognised for what we do, especially since Michelin recognised Malta. Slowly people are hearing more and more about our cuisine.”
Bonello says the past 15 years have seen a drastic improvement, with more tourists coming in and Malta rising as a popular tourist destination. “New tourists bring new trends, and a mixture of different cultures. Before Covid the economy was booming and lots of foreign employees were working on the island, bringing diversity and different demands. The tourism school has contributed a lot, as most students like me train abroad, from three months to three years. So you expose your students to different cultures and cuisines and that is brought to the country. Lately there’s a good committee of chefs that are unintentionally competing between themselves to be innovative and preserve old recipes, make them shine and serve them to tourists.”
Try the olive oil and Maltese bread for breakfast – a crunchy piece of sourdough, tomato paste and a bit of goat’s cheese, Bonello says. “Then snails, rabbit stew, our shellfish, red prawns and seafood like the local snapper when in season, or rockfish. Desserts such as ricotta mousse with dried figs, or date pockets (lemon blossom dough filled with date paste and fried, called Imqaret). Then the typical kind of ice cream called gela tan nanna or grandma’s ice cream made of condensed milk, fruit lemon and hazelnuts.”
Jonathan’s list includes the pastizzi pastry filled with ricotta or peas, found at every corner and a common fast food for breakfast or lunch. “Then our bread and our baked pasta: macaroni in a pastry, called timpana with beef ragout. The local sheep’s cheese – you can’t find this same taste anywhere else. And the local honey: it’s used in a lot of dishes, as since you have a lot of wild flora here bees graze on it and the honey has a very particular taste, especially in spring when we have a lot of wild flowers, it’s going to taste like flowers.”
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