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Malta - A Flavourful Island

Malta, a Mediterranean island known for its rich history, stunning architecture, and beautiful beaches, is also a haven for food lovers. The Maltese cuisine is a vibrant mix of Mediterranean flavors with influences from Italian, North African, and Middle Eastern cuisines. One of Malta's most popular dishes is rabbit, a staple in the Maltese diet and a true delicacy for locals and visitors alike. But Maltese cuisine is much more than rabbit!

We came to this small island state in late spring, discovering its cultural riches and culinary heritage in the capital, Valletta, and its adjacent cities. The humidity was considerable, but the views from the old city walls were spectacular. Some would simply say it is not different from neighbouring Italy, or at least Sicily. You would be wrong since Malta has a rich multicultural history, evidenced by the incredible mix of architectural heritage and the Maltese language. Add a stunning number of expats to it, and you have a Mediterranean melting pot par excellence.

Talking about pots, they are filled with exciting dishes that embrace everything the island’s nature offers. It is also an amalgam of many historical traditions, starting from Phoenicians, Romans, and Carthaginians to Arabs, Normans, Turks, Italians, French, and British, and with a special place given to the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodos, and of Malta, popularly known as the Maltese Knights, whose traces and inevitable tourist souvenirs can be found in almost every Maltese street.

The Knights were undoubtedly the most influential in transforming the island's scarce resources into a more exquisite cuisine, but today, the most significant influence comes from very close Sicily. There are numerous Sicilian restaurants nationwide, and additional pizzerias, but a genuine Maltese restaurant's coziness and particular atmosphere must be experienced. So, what should you eat in Malta?

Maltese Soups, Pastries, and Pies

Maltese traditional soups are a staple of the island's cuisine, often featuring fresh, local ingredients. Minestra is a hearty vegetable soup made with a mix of seasonal vegetables, beans, and sometimes pasta or rice, seasoned with herbs. It is thicker than the Italian minestrone and is often golden yellow because pumpkins are used. Also, it is served with grated parmesan or hard cheese, which makes all the difference to the Italian cousin.

Kusksu is a unique soup with tiny pasta beads, broad beans, fresh peas, and often a poached egg, flavoured with local goat cheese. Aljotta is a flavourful fish soup made with tomatoes, garlic, and herbs, usually prepared with the catch of the day. Its name comes from the Italian word for garlic, which is heavily used. Soppa tal-Armla, or Widow's Soup, is another soup from the ages when only an abundance of vegetables was available in Malta, coupled with some local cheese. These soups reflect the Mediterranean flavours and the agricultural heritage of Malta. We discovered it is the essence of traditional Maltese cooking, much more than seafood, which is a surprise!

Legend had it that during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 when food supplies dwindled, the resilient Maltese people had to make do with what little they had. People combined macaroni with a rich meat sauce, local cheese, eggs, and sometimes a hint of cinnamon, creating a hearty dish that could feed many and lift spirits during trying times. Until today, the freshest ingredients are gathered: tomatoes ripened under the Maltese sun, beef from local farmers, and ġbejna, the island’s unique sheep’s milk cheese. Traditionally, women would prepare the sauce, slow-cooking it to perfection and infusing it with garlic, onions, and a blend of secret spices known only to one’s family. This is Imqarrun il-Forn.

All exploration of Maltese pies is incomplete without mentioning pastizzi. These small, flaky pastries are ubiquitous snacks in every corner of Malta. Made with a dough similar to puff pastry, pastizzi are typically filled with either ricotta cheese or mushy peas. The process of making them is an art form, with the dough folded meticulously to create countless layers that puff up beautifully when baked. They are best enjoyed hot from the oven, often paired with tea or coffee, and we indeed had it every morning during our stay in Malta!

A unique entry in the world of pies, timpana is a hearty pasta pie that showcases Malta's Italian influence. This dish consists of macaroni mixed with a rich meat sauce encased in a flaky pastry shell. The pasta is cooked al dente and then baked to perfection, resulting in a comforting and indulgent pie. Timpana is a popular choice for family gatherings and festive occasions, offering a delightful blend of textures and flavours.

Qassatat is savoury hand pies that come with various fillings, such as spinach and tuna, ricotta, or mashed peas. These pies are made with a shortcrust pastry, which is filled and then twisted at the top to create a distinctive look. Qassatat is a favourite during Lent and other religious observances when meatless dishes are preferred. They are enjoyed both as a snack and as part of a meal, highlighting the versatility of Maltese pies.

Come autumn, Maltese kitchens buzz with the preparation of Lampuki pie, a seasonal specialty made with dorado (or mahi-mahi), locally known as lampuki. This fish is paired with spinach, olives, capers, and mint, all encased in a flaky pastry. The result is a harmonious blend of flavours, a celebration of the lampuki fishing season that runs from late August to November.

Vegetable Island

In the sun-drenched villages on the island of Malta, where the sea breeze carries the scent of wild thyme and rosemary, a patchwork of vibrant vegetables tells a story of tradition and the fertile land. One of the Maltese favourite traditions is the annual Festa ta’ l-Ikel, a festival celebrating the bounty of the harvest. Every year, villagers gathered in the square, bringing dishes showcasing Malta’s produce’s rich flavours.

One of the signature dishes is Kapunata, a Maltese version of ratatouille. Tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, and zucchini are freshly picked from the garden, sautéed with onions and garlic, and simmered slowly to meld the flavours together. The addition of olives and capers gave it a unique Maltese twist. Kapunata is a celebration of summer, a dish that brought sunshine to the table even in the cooler months.

No gathering is complete without Bigilla, a rustic dip made from broad beans. The beans are soaked overnight and cooked until tender, then mashed with garlic, olive oil, and fresh herbs. This simple yet tasty dish is served with crusty bread, perfect for sharing. Bigilla is more than just food; it symbolises hospitality and community, bringing people together with every bite.

And then there is Ftira, a traditional Maltese flatbread topped with various vegetables, such as ripe tomatoes, onions, olives, and capers, all drizzled with olive oil and baked to perfection. Each slice is a taste of Malta, capturing the essence of the island’s agricultural bounty. Ftira can be found on any corner in the small Maltese towns, testifying how popular this snack is among locals and visitors alike!

Savouring the Mediterranean Sea

In the heart of the Mediterranean, the island nation of Malta boasts a rich culinary tradition, deeply intertwined with the sea's bounties. Among its many gastronomic treasures, Maltese fish dishes stand out, reflecting the island's maritime heritage and vibrant cultural tapestry.

Spnotta or sea bass, is another staple of Maltese cuisine, often grilled or baked to highlight its delicate taste. One traditional preparation involves baking the fish whole with a medley of fresh herbs, lemon, and olive oil. This simple yet exquisite dish is a testament to the island’s philosophy of letting the natural flavours of the sea shine through.

Apart from it, and the famous fish soup, table will be filled with sea bream, red bream, dentex, grouper, stone bass, St Peter's fish, scorpion fish, hake, garfish, amberjack, and Lampuka or dolphin fish, which is very associated with Malta with its strong flavour.

To this day, the lampuki fishing season is a significant event in Malta, running from late August to November. Fishermen use traditional methods, setting out palm fronds to create floating shelters where lampuki gather. This practice, handed down through generations, is a nod to the island’s historical and legendary connection to the fish.

The story begins in 60 AD when Saint Paul, on his way to Rome as a prisoner, was caught in a violent storm. The ship, battered by relentless waves, eventually ran aground on the Maltese coast. This event, chronicled in the Acts of the Apostles, is believed to have taken place in what is now known as St. Paul’s Bay. As the castaways recuperated, they faced the pressing need for food. The local fishermen, inspired by Saint Paul’s prayers and teachings, ventured into the turbulent sea to provide sustenance for the weary travelers. Miraculously, the fishermen returned with an abundant catch, more than they had ever seen before. Among the fish they caught was a species that had not been seen in such quantities in Maltese waters. This fish, known today as the lampuki (mahi-mahi or dorado), became a symbol of divine providence and protection. The legend claims that Saint Paul blessed the fish, ensuring that the seas around Malta would always be bountiful.

Looking for meat

As all Mediterranean countries, Malta combines meat with lots of veggies to make a splendid mix on the plate, but its signature dish is definitely rabbit. Apart from it, you may expect Bragjoli, or beef olives, when thin slices of beef are rolled and stuffed with a mixture of minced pork, chopped ham, grated cheese, eggs, and parsley, lightly fried, and slowly cooked in casserole with fried onions, tomatoes, red wine, and water.

Beef stew (Stuffat tal-Laham) is another favourite casserole, where the finest beef chunks are prepared with onions, garlic, mushrooms, carrots, potatoes, and spices. Maltese also like stuffed roast chicken (tigiega mimlija), where the chicken is filled with minced beef, pork, and chopped ham with eggs, parsley, basil, and garlic, roasted and served with gravy. Some coat the chicken with butter and cover it with salt and pepper, and rosemary, to be served with potatoes.

The Sweet Side of Malta

Maltese desserts are a delightful reflection of the island's rich history and cultural influences. With roots in Arabic, Sicilian, and British cuisines, these sweet treats offer a unique taste of Malta's diverse culinary heritage.

Imqaret is a beloved Maltese dessert, often enjoyed at festivals and street markets. These deep-fried pastries are filled with a spiced date mixture, typically flavoured with aniseed and orange zest. The crispy exterior and the sweet, aromatic filling make Imqaret a perfect indulgence for those with a sweet tooth.

Inspired by the Sicilian cannoli, kannoli are another Maltese favorite. These crispy pastry tubes are filled with a sweet ricotta mixture, often enhanced with chocolate chips, candied fruit, or a hint of citrus. Combining the crunchy shell and the creamy filling offers a delightful contrast in textures and flavours.

Qagħaq tal-Għasel, or honey rings, are traditional Maltese cookies enjoyed especially during the festive season. Despite their name, they are made with treacle, giving them a rich, molasses-like taste. These ring-shaped pastries are flavoured with spices like cinnamon, cloves, and aniseed, making them a warming treat during the cooler months.

Figolli is colourful, almond-filled pastries shaped into various forms, such as hearts, stars, and animals. Traditionally made for Easter, these sweet treats are decorated with icing and chocolate, adding a festive touch. The almond filling is rich and moist, making figolli a cherished part of Maltese Easter celebrations.

Helwa tat-Tork is a sweet, dense confection made from sesame seeds and sugar, often mixed with almonds or pistachios. Its name, which means "Turkish sweet," reflects its origins. This dessert is enjoyed in small pieces due to its rich, sweet flavour and crumbly texture.

The Rich Tradition of Maltese Wine

With its warm Mediterranean climate and limestone-rich soils, Malta provides an ideal viticulture environment. The island's winemaking tradition dates back to ancient times, influenced by Phoenician, Roman, and later, Italian and French winemaking practices. Today, Maltese wine is gaining recognition for its quality and distinctiveness, with local grape varieties playing a key role in its unique profile. Malta's vineyards are primarily located on the main island and the smaller island of Gozo. The temperate climate, characterized by hot, dry summers and mild winters, coupled with cooling sea breezes, allows for producing red and white wines with vibrant aromas and good acidity.

Two indigenous grape varieties stand out in Malta's winemaking landscape: Ġellewża is the red grape variety unique to Malta and known for producing light to medium-bodied red wines with a fruity character. Wines made from Ġellewża often exhibit aromas of cherry, plum, and a hint of spice. It is also used to produce rosé wines, which are refreshing and aromatic. Girgentina is a white grape variety and is also native to Malta. Girgentina wines are typically light and crisp, with floral and citrus notes. These wines are perfect for enjoying during the island's warm summer months and pair well with seafood and light Mediterranean dishes.

In addition to the indigenous varieties, several international grape varieties are cultivated in Malta, contributing to the diversity of its wine production. These include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. Several wineries in Malta have gained acclaim for their high-quality wines, blending traditional techniques with modern innovation. Notable wineries include Marsovin, one of Malta's oldest wineries, known for its wide range of wines and commitment to quality; Delicata, a family-owned winery producing a variety of wines from local and international grape varieties; and Meridiana Wine Estate, known for its premium wines, made from carefully selected grapes grown in the Maltese countryside.

Photos by: Pixabay and Visit Malta


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