Friday, 2 October 2009

Maltese cuisine - an overview

This has to be one of my first topics to write about because I am half-Maltese and grew up with home cooked Maltese food. The Maltese love their food, like most Mediterraneans, so you can probably see where I get it from! I have only visited Malta once myself, but am hoping to rectify this in years to come.

Despite being such a small country, Malta has its own distinctive cuisine, and while some dishes bear similarities to those of its neighbour Italy, it has plenty of its own foodstuffs peculiar to Maltese shores.

Here are some of my favourite Maltese dishes, some of which I've made myself and some of which I've only eaten.

Hobz Biz-Zejt

This literally translates as "bread with oil". In Malta, this is a traditional, staple snack and one that can be easily produced with a few basic ingredients.

It is best to use unsliced white bread, which you can then slice yourself into thick chunks. Unfortunately, I don't believe any bread bought in this country can come close to the range of breads available to buy in Malta, but we can certainly make the best of what we've got. The bread is then smeared with either tomato puree or the juice of fresh tomatoes – I prefer the sweetness of tomato puree, myself. Then the bread is placed dipped in olive oil (best to use a plate or a bowl for this and simply place tomato-side down to give it a thin-coating). I would definitely recommend using extra-virgin olive oil – I recently read about the difference between extra-virgin, virgin and normal olive oil, and now I won't buy anything except the extra-virgin stuff: I'll take my oil from the first pressing, thanks. Anyway, we're almost done! Last but not least, garnish the bread with chopped green pitted olives, capers and some fresh mint if you fancy it, et voila! A simple and tasty snack. The contrast of the bitterness of the olives and capers and the sweetness of the tomato, combined with the richness of the oil, is just heavenly.

This is the version I am familiar with, but I found this blog entry from a Maltese blogger and apparently it's common to use tuna fish and all sorts as well. Sounds yummy!

I have never made these myself and don't intend to in the future, mostly because the idea of making anything with pastry scares me silly. I know I need to conquer this fear one day. Heck, you can even buy most pastry read-prepared these days!

Anyway, if you haven't guessed from the name and my musings on pastry, these are small pastry-based snacks, almost like a small pastie, but with different fillings. When my grandparents used to make frequent trips to Malta, they would often bring back pastizzi. They come in two varieties: ricotta cheese and peas. They are both scrumptious and the next time I do make it to Malta will probably be the first thing I eat. They have a buttery, flaky pastry and a soft warm filling and the whole thing just melts in your mouth. Mmmm. I haven't eaten one in a long time, though, so I hope they are as good as I remember.

Again, blogger comes up trumps, with a recipe by a bonafide Maltese blogger!

Maltese soup
My mum made this a lot and still does, in fact. We always just called it 'Maltese soup', and I'm not actually sure what it's called in Maltese. It is similar to Italian minestrone soup, containing pasta and vegetables, but sometimes containing meat as well (my mum usually does it with chicken). I have helped my mum to make it, but have never made it on my own, possibly because I have been daunted by having to boil a chicken carcass to make the stock, but this is another thing I plan to do in the future. I'd like to anyway, because despite the fact that I now make lots of different soups of my own (this will be discussed in future entries, I promise!), this remains possibly my all-time favourite soup – probably because I associate it with coming home from school on cold Autumn and Winter days and mum having a hearty bowl of Maltese soup ready for me.

Main Meals

Yes, like Italy a bolognese sauce is not uncommon in Malta (well, it wasn't in my house, at least) and I suspect that in Malta as everywhere else, there are many variations. The recipe I use was taught to me by my mother (in fact this was the first thing I ever learnt to cook), which was taught to her by her mother. Over the years, I have added touches of my own, and I will post the recipe, but I want to make a separate entry for it.

Patata il Forn (Potato in the oven)
I have made this dish myself with some success. It is made with peeled and sliced potatoes, seasoned with fennel seeds and can be cooked with meat (it works very well with chicken) or fish. I really like the herby flavour of the fennel seeds and I think this is a great alternative to an English roast dinner. Again, I plan to post my recipe in another entry!

For some reason I am not too familiar with any Maltese desserts, aside from Maltese biscuits. However, there is one particular Maltese drink that I am very fond of and that is Kinnie. Kinnie is a bitter orange drink, which tastes almost alcoholic, but of course it isn't. This is another flavour I strongly associate with Malta and something that my grandparents would frequently bring back from their visits.

If you'd like to know more, I suggest checking out the Wikipedia page on Maltese Cuisine, as it has quite a comprehensive list of dishes. I'm going to have to stop looking at it now because it's making me hungry!

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