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Malta has a rich culinary tradition. In a way it is the first ever fusion cuisine in the world. Historically, when the knights were in Malta, each of the Langues brought with them their own chefs and their own ingredients. Although the native Maltese had little or no direct contact with the Knights, they too worked in the kitchens of the langues and learnt a lot. That knowledge was then taken home and the food was re-interpreted and integrated in the local cuisine. In a way, this is an over simplistic outline of the chain of events, but the effects of this process are evident to this day.
The basis of the Maltese cuisine is what is known as the Cucina Povera - the poor man's kitchen. What was poor man's kitchen then, is hip haute cuisine now. To this day you have widow's soup, a soup that was made by poor widows made by morsels and left overs from the local community. It is anything but cheap to prepare a widow's soup in today's terms. So do not be snobbish about Cucina Povera. Cucina Povera is great. Traditional Maltese food was simmered for a long time hence it is difficult to get a wide choice in restaurants. Till shortly after the war most Maltese homes did not have ovens and so baked dishes were reserved for special occassions or Sunday. Housewives - or rather children - would take the dish to be cooked at the local bakery. The result was delicious and even when ovens became commonplace many continued with this practice till recent times.
The Maltese cuisine today is influenced by the Italian kitchen, yet there are a lot of Arabic influences. Well, Italian kitchen is predominantly Arabic anyway. There are close relationships and similarities between the Sicilian Cuisine and the Maltese Cuisine. The only difference is the influence of the British. The result is that there are still restaurants that cater for British tastes while othere are Continental. There are also a number of Thai, Indian, Chinese, Mexican etc restaurants as well as the international chains.
The Maltese eating habits are heavily based on carbohydrates - bread (and lets face it, they make fantastic Maltese Bread - actually originally the Knights brought their own bakers from Rhodes and what Malta has today is a direct line of that product) that is addictive, ---A number of years ago, it might have been true that awful pasta,and bad pizza were commonly served. However, nowadays there are many `pasta & pizza` restaurants that are generally good to very good. Pastizzi remain one of the best fast foods ever. Small parcels of flaky pastry stuffed with ricotta or mushy peas - delicious and loved by everyone. No wonder Malta has one of the highest diabetes and obesity rates in the world.
Today you will find restaurants that you would have found in Chelsea 50 years ago, serving the same old Steak Diane and prawn cocktail with the ubituitous lettuce leaf and the obligatory slice of tomato on top. This statement would cover 85% of the restaurants in Malta. However, as many of the population (local and tourists) are conservative and prefer a large portion of plain and traditionaly loved food , they are all happy with that. They definately would not be happy with a large plate with a tiny piece of meat in the middle artistically decorated !
Thank God for the other fifteen percent. Here you can experience amazing food in gorgeous settings and with fantastic service. If its popular it does not mean it is good. A lot of people do not have an understanding of quality.
For many Maltese, by good chocolate they mean Cadbury Dairy Milk ( there is a reason for this - a political one. In the 70s all importation of such goods was banned by Dom Mintoff, the then Prime Minister of Malta. Instead, things like chocolate were produced locally - and they were VERY bad - Deserta it was called. So Cadbury wasonly found on the black market and at a premium. Things in Malta move very slowly and the mindset has not changed since then - not much anyway). Good chocolate is Valrhona and can be found easily but still the common chocolate bars and boxes popular in the UK and Italy are the most chosen here.
If you visit Malta and want to experience superb food, ask some locals who know what they are talking about. Look for restaurants who prepare their own food. A lot of the very cheap restaurants buy things in and do little more than follow the instructions on the packet. Avoid colourful ice creams - seek good ice creams. They exist. Seek great coffee, it exists, seek great food, it exists. Fantastic cakes - they exist. But you will not find it in the touristy places which cater for the average tourist who is after value for money and reasonable prices. However, nowadays in the St Julians area quite a few very good restaurants have opened up. You need to get off the beaten track and find the little gems around the place.
Malta's only independent restaurant review is Mona's Meals, on Malta Today's Sunday Edition or on www.planetmona.com and it`s a very entertaining review. However, as she has become a low carb fanatic some reviews have become rather restricted.
There are restaurants that interpret the Cucina Povera in a modern style and do it superbly. There are restaurants that thrive on the passing trade - avoid them unless you are just after a quick cheap meal = nothing fancy. There are restaurants that form part of hotels - not always a wise move. Unlike hotels anywhere else, few of the smaller Maltese hotels trust their restaurants to good chefs. Instead, everything is mass produced using the cheapest possible ingredients to meet budget targets. The 5* on the other hand have some lovely restaurants with great views and service
You get what you pay for. In Malta though sometimes you do not even get that. Paceville, Sliema, and all the other really touristy places like Bugibba have little or no decent restaurants. There are, but one is talking about one in a hundred. That is if by decent you mean `fine`. They all have many restaurants that give a good service but without linen table clothes and napkins, no wine waiter, no elegant front of house staff, no artisticaly decorated food , no expensive special ingredients , no unusual combinations , no minute portions etc. - in other words definately not Michelin standard. Just the `normal decent` food most people choose on a daily basis. The Maltese choose the reknowned restaurants for special occasions when they are prepared to splurge a little.
Valletta has recently undergone a revolution, and a number of small very good restaurants and wine bars have opened.
Unfortunately there are no guides that rate restaurants in the same way Michelin rates restaurnts in the rest of Europe. Nonetheless, if you go into a restaurant and you do not like what you see once you sit down, excuse yourself and leave. It is not a big deal. And always look at the menu displayed outside on the menu box. it tells you both about the prices and about the type of food.
Food is about passion and commitment. One of the things that the Maltese are passionate about is football; and they are rubbish it at it. Now imagine food!! They are not that passionate about haute cuisine, so you could imagine what the chances are for you to find gourmet cuisine here and although they are careful about quality at home, when eating out expect large portions. There are a handful of young guys though that certainly deliver where the others fail. Seek them out , it`s worth spending more occassionaly. Your in flight magazine might have something about restaurants that is both up to date and interesting. Worth taking the magazine with you.
Ultimately food is many things for many men. One man's food is another man's poison and all the other sayings all ring true. if you are a pizza and burger type kind of person, then Malta is a safe bet. If you like haute cuisine, Malta is not the obvious destination, but some of the guys here are talented, young, determined and fantastic at what they do. If you want haute cuisine, one would have to seek out Xara Palace Hotel's restaurant - it can be brilliant and it could be awful; it depends on the day. There is Palazzo Santa Rosa in Mistra Bay - if you want passion for food, this is the place to go. The chef was described as mad by some food critic. He is mad about food. He gets only the finest ingredients and grows his own vegetables. Check the chicken dish on his Autumn Menu. It is hilarious. So funny. So good, but they do not take themselves too seriously. Beautiful place too. Ambrosia in Valletta is good too. Chris the chef is a seasoned experienced talented guy; perfect for lunch on Archbishop Street in Valletta. Victor Borg's restaurant at the Phoenicia Hotel is meant to be good, but I heard different opinions. Victor has a great track record though. One hopes that he has not been corrupted by hotel mentality. But remember, these type of restaurants aren`t cheap - not the places to go just for quick meal with friends or family but great for a celebration. After all, the Michelin rated restaurants in the rest of Europe aren`t frequented by locals and tourists who are on a budget and eat out regularly.
You will love Maltese food. You do not even need to be adventerous; you just need to be open minded and willing to try new flavours, textures and tastes. There is nothing in the Maltese cuisine that is "weird" (no chocolate dipped lizards or fermented tofu!!) bar maybe for some, snails. It is not Italian, it is not Arabic, it is not Greek. It is not even Mediterranean. It is simply that - Maltese and it is the best of many worlds. Maltese bread, bigilla, gbejniet, stuffed olives, cooked maltese sausage and a glass of wine or beer will all go down a treat.
What are typical Maltese dishes? Here are some:
Rabbit (Fenek). One of the restaurants above call it "Watership Down". Rabbits are reared and farmed in Malta and are very tasty indeed. There are some places that specialise in just rabbit. Mgarr is a village that has tons of these cheap and cheerful places. Warning though; their rabbit cooking skills are severly restricted to a mediocre compromised style. A good rabbit experience can be had in many nicer restaurants.
Widow Soup (Soppa ta' l-armla). This is basically a vegetable soup (traditionaly white and green veg ) but with fresh Maltese cheese and an egg added to it. Some people add little pasta to it but this is not necessary. Should not be runny but hearty and rich. Served with Parmesan cheese on top.
Stuffed Gourd or Long Marrow (Qara Twil Mimli). You do not come across gourd or long marrow much outside Malta yet it is a wonderfully tasting vegetable. Very particular. The Maltese remove the inside, peel it and stuff it with a combination of minced meat, parmesan, garlic, parsley and a few eggs and then cook it in a broth.
Torta tal-Lampuki (Mahi Mahi Pie)
Pastizzi (savoury pastries) - flaky pastry stuffed with ricotta or mushy peas
Brungiel Mimli (Stuffed Aubergines)
Bigilla (Gerba bean dip)
Gbejna (fresh Maltese cheese)
Ravjul tal-irkotta (Ricotta filled ravioli) served with a tomato sauce
Timpana (macaroni in a pastry case)
Ross il-forn (Baked Rice)
AND BEST OF ALL - hobz biz-zejt - maltese bread or ftira , rubbed with oil and tomato then with garlic, onion, tuna, gerkins - when the bread is fresh the most delicious treat of all
Qaghaq ta' l-ghasel - pastry stuffed with a honey mixture
Mqaret (Sweet date filled pastries)
Kannoli (pastry tubes fried then stuffed with rikotta)
Twistees( Rice,snack)- available in the UK as Tastees. www.tastees.info