Cookbook:Cuisine of Malta
Malta's typically Mediterranean cuisine reflect its history as well as its geography and is the result of the relationships between the Islanders and the many foreign dominations over the centuries. The distinctive traditional island dishes are based on the produce of the land and sea, and some of these reflect gastronomically the legacies of the past with elements of Arab, Spanish and Southern Italian influences as well as of the more recent British colonial presence (1800 to 1964). Sweets in particular show influences from the Arab period that started in 869 A.D. (the Arabs conquered Sicily in 827 A.D). It is not surprising that Malta and Sicily have a few dishes in common (or call them counterparts or relatives) since even after the Arab period ended Malta continued to be ruled from Sicily as one among many Sicilian islands: by the Normans first (from around 1090 when they created the Kingdom of the South), then by the enlightened Swabians (until 1250), followed briefly by the Anjouins and then the Aragonese, from 1288 until 1530, when the Maltese islands were given to the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem (or Knights of Malta) by Charles V.
The influences from outside Malta's shores continue, though nowadays they come through travel and TV rather than foreign domination, and alongside Malta's traditional cuisine with its strong Southern Mediterranean character, there is today an eclectic mix of dishes drawn from other cuisines, not only Italian but also Asian, North American and Mexican for example. This article on Maltese cuisine however refers exclusively to the traditional dishes of Malta and Gozo, still widely prepared and enjoyed on the islands of Malta and Gozo, the second island, which boasts a number of dishes all of its own.
It is a simple and healthy "Cucina Povera" that makes nourishing and tasty dishes based on local vegetables, legumes and cereals. In the past it relied on pulses, eggs and local cheese for protein most of the time, though there were also meat and fish dishes for the better off and for special occasions.
For reasons of climate and territory, Maltese Cuisine uses similar ingredients to the cuisines of the Southern Mediterranean Cuisines using vegetables like artichokes, cauliflowers, carrots and cabbages in winter and in summer sweet peppers, zucchini, green beans, tomatoes, garlic, and onions. Fresh locally grown fruit ranges from excellent winter citrus, especially blood oranges and tangerines, to plums, peaches, melons, watermelons, grapes, figs, mulberries, prickly pears and pomegranates. Fish and shellfish are plentiful and include delicacies like sea urchin and the ever-popular squid and octopus dishes. The most popular meats are pork and rabbit, chicken and kid; game birds like quail and woodcock are still popular unlike horsemeat and sea turtle meat, which were traditionally eaten. Locally picked wild capers are notably good and a particular delicacy. They are often used in sauces especially for pasta or fish dishes. Local land snails are also popular, especially in late summer.
Relationship with other cuisines
A shared history, as well as geographical proximity leading to trading and other contact, means Maltese cuisine shares some dishes with Southern Italy and with the rest of the Mediterranean. For example the Ricotta filled Sweet Cannoli are identical to those of nearby Sicily while the savoury ricotta-filled pastry snack Pastizzi resemble in shape and in the pastry used the sweet ricotta-filled Sfogliatelle of Naples. In similar fashion Malta's Baked Pastas, Pasta with Aubergines, Pasta with Tuna, with Tomato and Ricotta etc have many relatives in Calabria, Puglia, Molise, Basilicata, Campania, Sardinia and Sicily. Maltese cooked summer vegetable salads such a Caponata (a dish of Arab origins) and Peperonata are also found with local variations all round the Mediterranean, not only in Italy but also in France, Spain and Greece.
Sweets and pastries show many traces of the Arab contribution to Malta's cuisines as they are often based on nuts, dates, figs, carobs, orange flower water and Malta's superb honey. As Malta was ruled from Sicily from the Arab period until the arrival of the Knights, it is likely that sweets and sweetmeats also found in Southern Sicily had a single origin.
The British influence on Maltese cuisine is related to the importation of many products from Britain and its other colonies; for example New Zealand lamb and British cheddar cheese. Where once the Christmas meal consisted of broth or Timpana followed by a stuffed capon or a large rooster or perhaps a roast leg of pork or mutton, ending with Treacle Rings, in the last decades of British rule roast stuffed turkey and Plum Pudding became established as the Maltese Christmas meal. Tea is widely drunk on the islands and long grain rice is the kind most often used in Maltese cooking. The British also gave Malta sweets like Hot Cross Buns, Bread and Butter pudding and Rice pudding as well as a fondness for curry powder. A hint of curry powder is often detectable in meat stews and in the filling of the Bragjoli beef rolls, where the name of the dish is derived from Sicilian dialect. Potatoes - which grow locally - are served with main courses, far more often than in neighbouring Italy. Bread is often buttered, in part because this fitted in with local use of butter (made from the cream of sheep's or goat's milk) or lard rather than olive oil as the main cooking fats. And it is chips with everything on many restaurant menus - a pity as Malta's own baked potato dish like potatoes "smothered" with onions or sliced and baked in water and oil topped with caraway seeds, are far tastier.
A Maltese Meal
A Maltese meal may be a one course affair or it may start with a soup.
There are many substantial soups, stews, pies and baked pastas that constitute a complete meal all by themselves. These are more likely to be cold weather fare while simply cooked fish and fresh or cooked vegetable salads like Kapunata are common in summer
Typically Maltese is the custom of cooking a meat or stuffed vegetable in soup or sauce: the soup, or the sauce served on pasta becomes the first course, while the meat or stuffed vegetable becomes the second course.
At a Maltese traditional family meal, dessert consists of fresh fruit. Cakes were reserved for holidays, Saint's Day Feasts and special occasions such as marriages and christenings.
Maltese Bread is a very important element of the diet and is ever present on the local table along with water and often wine.
Some key features of Maltese cuisine
- a love of garlic, in fact the basis of many stews, soups and sauces is garlic, onion and concentrated tomato paste
- many stuffed vegetables dishes baked, poached in broth, pan simmered; also stuffed meat and fish
- healthy soups of all kinds (often made with cereals and legumes as well as vegetables, meat and fish)
- one pot stews of vegetables, poultry, meat, salt cod, octopus, squid etc
- many shallow fried patties of vegetables, fish, salt cod, ground pork, ground beef etc
- herbs like marjoram, mint, basil in summer, thyme, parsley and bay in winter
- spices like cinnamon, cloves, anise and fennel seeds, caraway and coriander
- sweets scented with tangerine, orange and lemon zest and with orange flower water
- the particular type of ground black pepper used in Malta has a very distinctive aroma all its own
Following is a list, by no means exhaustive, of some of the better known Maltese dishes, divided into general categories.
- Aljotta Fish soup with tomato,garlic, mint or marjoram and rice
- Brodu Broth
- Brodu tac-Canga Beef broth
- Kawlata Hearty chunky soup, almost a stew, of cabbage, potato and pork knuckle (or Maltese sausage), sometimes also bacon: tasty and comforting one pot winter meal
- Kusksu Spring soup of fresh Broad Beans with onions, tomatoes and mint and the essential ingredient of a typically Maltese small "bead" shaped pasta
- Minestra Thick many vegetable soup finished with grated (dry) or sliced (fresh) local cheeselets that may be related to Basque Menestra
- Soppa ta' l-Armla Widow's soup - vegetable soup topped with a sheep's milk cheeselet or a just set egg
Pasta and Rice
- Mqarrun il-Forn Baked macaroni in tomato and minced meat sauce enriched with chicken livers, bacon, egg, diced cheese and sometimes peas
- Ravjul Half moon shape home made pasta pockets with a ricotta and parsley filling, sometimes filled with fresh local sheep's cheese, dressed with a garlicky fresh tomato sauce and topped with grated cheese: either Parmigiano or a pepper corn studded Romano-like cheese known locally as "cheese for grating"
- Ross il-Forn Savoury rice tossed with tomato sauce, minced beef and grated cheese, bound with eggs and oven baked till firm but moist
- Spaghetti biz-Zalza tal-Qarnit Spaghetti with a tomato stewed octopus sauce containing black olives, peas, tomatoes, wine, orange or lemon zest and mint or marjoram
- Tarja bil-Bajd Cooked Angel hair (very thin) noodles mixed with eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and parsley and fried into a kind of crisp savoury cake
- Timpana Pastry enclosed or pastry topped baked macaroni as described above
- Bragjoli Small Beef roll-ups or parcels enclosing a savoury filling of breadcrumbs, parsley, bacon or ham and cheese, with a touch of curry powder often cooked in a sauce
- Falda tal-Majjal Mimlija Pork flank stuffed with a savoury mix of grated cheese, minced pork and parsley. May be steamed, poached in broth or oven baked
- Fenek Moqli Jointed rabbit shallow fried with garlic
- Fenek bit-Tewm u l-Inbid Red wine marinated rabbit on the bone simmered with garlic, bay leaves and wine
- Pulpetti tal-laham Small meat patties of ground beef or pork mixed with breadcrumbs, grated cheese, parsley, onion and garlic
- Majjal Fgat "Smothered" Pork : a chunk of pork leg seasoned with salt, pepper and coriander seeds, long simmered in a tightly sealed pot. A mix of breadcrumbs, parsley, thyme, minced garlic, lemon zest and lemon juice may be added either from the start or towards the end of cooking time.
- Gamiem bil Haxxu Turtle doves simmered til tender with onions, potatoes, carrots and kohlrabi, then filled with pork sausage meat and finished on onions and diced bacon with red wine and optional peas.
- Zalzett tal-Malti Maltese pork sausage with coriander seed, sea salt and black pepper, fresh or dried
Poultry and Game
- Tigiega bil Haxu (Minced beef or rice stuffed chicken, sometimes cooked in broth/brodu)
Fish & Seafood
- Accjola (Amber jack)
- Cerna (Grouper)
- Denci ( Dentix - a kind of bream)
- Dott (Stone bass)
- Fanfri (Pilot fish)
- Lampuka (Mahi Mahi (Dorado)
- Lampuki Moqlija (Maltese fried dorado)
- Pixxispad (Swordfish)
- Qarnit (Octopus)
- Sargu (White bream)
- Spinotta (Sea bass)
- Trill (Red mullet)
- Torta tal-Brungiel u l-Ikkapuljat Aubergine and minced beef pie
- Torta tal-Fenek Rabbit pie
- Torta tal-Irkotta Sheep's milk ricotta, parsley and cheese pie, bound with eggs
- Torta tal-Laham Meat pie
- Torta tal-Lampuki Lampuki fish pie with spinach, peas, capers, anchovies, walnuts and raisins,or sometimes with olives, cauliflower, spinach, chestnuts and tomato paste
- Torta tal-Qargha Hamra Savoury Pumpkin pie with rice, anchovy, black olives and tuna ideally salted not in oil
- Torta tal-Qastan Sweet pie of chestnut puree with sultanas, cocoa, cinnamon and cloves
- Stuffat tac-Canga Beef stew
- Stuffat tal-Fenek Rabbit stew slow simmered in red wine or tomato sauce
- Stuffat tal-Majjal Slow stewed pork
- Stuffat tal-Qaqocc A spring dish of fresh artichokes braised with fresh peas and fava beans and tomatoes, often topped with a fresh cheeselet and finished with a poached egg nestling in a hollow among the vegetables
- Stuffat tal-Qarnit Octopus slow simmered in red wine with olives,tomatoes, black pepper and mint; sometimes also peas, lemon or orange zest and a hint of curry powder
- Bigilla Bean paste made from dried broad beans, garlic, parsley and olive oil, may be spiced up with the addition of a small hot pepper
- Brungiel Mimli Baked aubergine (eggplant) shells filled with a mixture of minced beef, aubergine/eggplant, cheese, tomato, garlic and parsley, with a crisp cheese and breadcrumb topping
- Bzar Ahdar Mimli Stuffed green peppers - many fillings exist: minced beef, rice, fresh Lampuka, canned tuna. May be cooked on top of the stove or baked
- Kapunata Cold cooked summer vegetable medley of aubergines, sweet bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic, summer herbs and olive oil
- Qaqocc Mimli Globe artichokes stuffed with breadcrumbs, parsley and garlic
- Qargha Baghli Mimli Stuffed baby marrows - pale green round courgettes (zucchini)
- Imqaret Deep fried pastry diamonds with an Anis scented date paste filling
- Kannoli Ricotta filled crisp deep fried pastry tubes
- Pastizzi Savoury small crisp pastry pie filled with ricotta or split peas
- Qassatat Savoury small round pie with ricotta, split peas or other fillings
- Qassatat tal-Incova Small round savoury pies with spinach and anchovy filling, optional slivers of black olive and cooked split green peas
Eggs and Cheese
- Froga Maltese style omelette
- Barbuljata Malta style barely set scrambled eggs with tomato, garlic and mint or parsley
- Gbejna Artisan goat or sheep's milk cheeselets
- Gbejna Friska The fresh soft version, sweet creamy milk taste
- Gbejna mahsula Salt cured in brine (a salt and water mix)
- Gbejna moxxa Aged dried Gbejna
- Gbejna tal-Bzar The sharper and harder textured pepper cured version. These may also be preserved by pickling in a mixture of oil and vinegar, when they develop a piquant flavour and a crumbly texture
- Galletti Round hard Maltese Sea biscuits
- Hobza tal-Malti Maltese crusty durum wheat sour dough bread
- Hobz biz-Zejt Maltese olive oil and tomato based sandwich, a portable lunch
- Biskutelli Dry crisp anis scented toasted biscuit for dipping in milk, tea, or coffee
- Biskuttini tal-Lewz Almond biscotti
- Figolla Maltese Easter sweet in various shapes with an almond paste filling, decorated with glazed designs
- Helwa tat-Tork Sesame Paste Halva with whole almonds and/or pistachios
- Krustini Country hard biscuits for sipping in tea or coffee
- Kwarezimal Lent sweet with almonds, cinnamon and the zest of lemon, orange and tangerine, perfumed with orange blossom water, topped with chopped pistachios and drizzled with honey
- Pudina tal-Hobz Crisp topped tender bread pudding with cocoa and sultanas and sometimes chopped dates, glacé cherries, chopped almonds, orange zest
- Ottu tal-Gunglien Figure of eight soft buns sprinkled with sesame seeds
- Qaghaq tal-Ghasel Semolina, candied citrus peel and treacle filled pastry rings
- Qubbajt Nougat soft or hard, with almonds, hazelnuts or all sesame seed
- Torta tat-Tamal Date pie with cocoa, chopped walnuts, Anisette liqueur, orange juice and zest