Malta is at a crossroads in the Mediterranean. It’s an easy 50 miles or so off the coast of Sicily, not much further from the Maghreb, and flanked more distantly by the Middle East. The influence of its surrounding neighbours can be felt most strongly in its menus. Maltese cuisine is also heavily seasoned with a history that counts the Ottomans, Spanish, French and British as former rulers. The result is a fascinating – and utterly delicious – range of culinary influences. Our advice for first-time travellers to Malta? Be sure to bring a substantial appetite.
Whether it’s freshly rolled pasta or oven-hot bread, carbs are commonplace here. Begin the day with a coffee and a pastizzi – a light, flaky pastry stuffed with creamy ricotta or peas. Crystal Palace, a favourite bakery in Rabat that’s almost always open, bakes the best on the island. While its fresh-from-the-oven pastizzi counts as one of the most ingenious ways to awaken the palate, the coffee also deserves a special mention. It’s often dosed with aniseed, cloves and chicory.
A staple of traditional Maltese cuisine staple is ftira – a rustic sourdough bread. It’s thickly sliced and rubbed with a juicy tomato before being topped with a satisfying tang of capers, anchovies, cheese, and fresh herbs, to create another Maltese favourite: hobz biz-zejt.
Naturally, seafood reigns supreme in Maltese cuisine. Marsaxlokk, a fishing village in the south-east, is considered ground zero, with the rustic Ir-Rizzu Restaurant in the harbour one of the best places to sample it. Here, the seafood platters are piled high with the usual suspects – juicy mussels, crisp calamari and plump prawns. Lampuki, otherwise known as mahi mahi or dorado, is a popular catch of the day and comes baked, fried or drenched in zalza Maltija.
While a steaming bowl of soup might seem an unusual plat du jour on a sunny Mediterranean island, the rustic soppa tal-armla (widow’s soup) and minestra (minestrone) make great use of the island’s crop of home-grown vegetables. More meaty is the kawlata, a vegetable broth with thick pork sausage chopped in, while the aljotta, a fishy cousin of bouillabaisse, has been a staple since the Knights of Malta.
Given its proximity to Italy, Malta’s pasta is particularly delicious. Homemade ravjul –ravioli stuffed with fresh sheep’s cheese – has been a lunchtime favourite supposedly since the Middle Ages, while timpana, a comforting, meaty lasagne of baked pasta topped with shortcrust pastry, would tempt the most determined of keto dieters. Rabbit is also a popular carnivorous choice in Maltese cuisine. Fenkata (rabbit stew) is a national dish and is often served with pasta as a ragu.
Only a fool would willingly give Maltese dessert a miss: kannoli are the local version of the Italian ricotta-based treat and the local gelato might warrant skipping the starters.