Introduction to Maltese Cuisine

The history of Maltese and Gozitan food is best seen through the history of our islands going back as far as the Phoenicians who first visited more than 5,000 years ago. A wide range of cooking techniques have been brought to us by invading forces, religious movements, rulers or even captured slaves!

The influences on Maltese food have been many – the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, the Knights, the French (briefly) and the British – have each left their mark, but to make it more complicated, cultures influenced one another; what may have started as an Arab way of cooking also affected the Sicilian cuisine so what we may think of as Sicilian is really an Arab influence. Turkish and Moorish slaves taught their captors their own ways of cooking and the Knights brought with them regional cuisines from their different parts of France and Italy.

Different ways of cooking merged into one another so that Arab ways merged into pre-existing Roman ones – it is this blending of differences which produces what we call “traditional” food – which is about handing down customs and ideas from ancestors to future generations. The term “tradition” then applies to recipes which have lasted over the centuries and reflect what most Maltese and Gozitan people have come to love – what they have learned from their grandparents, what their neighbours or friends eat - think of timpana or minestra (thick vegetable soup) or stuffat tal- fenek (rabbit stew) – or street food like pastizzi (cheese pies) or mqaret. (spicy date pastries).

It is difficult to pin down a recipe as “definitely Arab or Sicilian” since dishes came from one or more different sources. As Professor Carmel Cassar wrote in “Eating Through Time” (2007), there was a continuous exchange between the peasants who produced the food and the town cooks who made subtle changes and embellished simple dishes. By the early 19thcentury these changes were re-absorbed by the rural poor and it is this constant process of addition here, variation there which we can now call “traditional”.

Pasta is linked to Sicily and Italy because we are geographically and culturally close to both. We have a great variety of vegetable recipes including stuffed vegetables which may be found all over the Mediterranean and are economical as well as delicious. Yet other recipes resemble those from different parts of France and must have been learned in the kitchens of the Knights – our meat and vegetable soups so similar to the French… also what we call ghad-dobbu may have come from the French ‘en daube’. Our gbejniet may have been learned or at least perfected in the Knights ‘ kitchens – you can spot the resemblance easily in French markets – yet one may encounter something very similar to our gbejniet tal-bzar in Aleppo too.

Pastizzi and mqaret are almost certainly of North African origin – especially the unique thin pastry with which both are made.

Hobz Malti or Maltese bread is renowned throughout the world – until recently it was a pure sour dough bread but increasingly in the last 60 years or so a small amount of yeast is added together with a piece of the previous day’s dough which gives its characteristic taste and appearance. This kind of bread can be found in Greece as well as in Italy.

Our heritage is truly rich in the foods which enrich our recipes. Olive trees have been here for about 5,000 years and our olive oil industry thrived before it was replaced by cotton – an early cash crop. There has now been an extraordinary revival with the planting of thousands of local olive trees leading to the production of superb olive oil and new trees have been grafted from indigenous sources.

Maltese għasel tas-saghtar (wild thyme honey) is probably the best in the Mediterranean though we should be aware of the worldwide threat to bees. True Maltese tomatoes have a unique texture and flavour and Maltese oranges have been praised over the centuries, our blood oranges being famous for the French ‘Sauce Maltaise’. There is small-scale production of orange flower water in Gozo.

What of the influences of the present? It is up to us to reject what amounts almost to false food, pre-packaged and costly but not as good as what we can cook ourselves using pure ingredients. If you love good food, keep cooking. Simplicity is good – stuff a fish or some aubergines with fresh parsley and garlic and you will be continuing a tradition set by our earliest ancestors.