The archipelago of Malta lies right beneath Sicily, with Tunisia, Libya, Greece and Turkey just across the water. Having such a historically strategic geographical positioning, it is not surprising that the Maltese islands have been subjected to numerous political occupations throughout history. These days, the Maltese very much enjoy their independence; however their culture has irrevocably been shaped by the vast range of influences deriving from past occupations. A prime example of the islands’ diverse number of cultural influences can be found in one of the most enjoyable experiences to be had while visiting Malta – sampling the archipelago’s truly unique cuisine.
Firstly, it’s clear to see that Italy has had an impact on Maltese culinary traditions. Throughout the island you’ll find Italian cake shops, pizzerias, pasta cafes and gelatarias. Dinner, in line with Italian custom, is also eaten later at night – enjoyed with wine, of course. The Maltese, lika Italians, enjoy aperitifs and dessert wines – the island even has its very own ‘bajtra’ – a pink, sweet liqueur made from the prickly pears that grow in abundance across the island.
Then of course there is the strong influence of Turkish cuisine, dating back from when the Ottoman Empire controlled the archipelago. Dates, almonds and honey are the predominant flavours in cakes, biscuits and sweet pastries in Malta. Imqaret (a fried slice of biscuit-wrapped date often eaten with ice cream) and qaghaq tal-ghasel (a hard pastry ring with treacle, molasses and honey filling) are two of the most traditional desserts to try while in Malta. If you are visiting around Easter, you should also sample the seasonal almond biscuit cake figolli.
The famous Maltese pastizzi (a flaky cheese or pea-filled pastry) is also believed to have come from the Turks. The islands’ national dish – fried rabbit – might seem a bit odd considering rabbits are few and far between in Malta. However the tradition of eating rabbit dates back hundreds of years however, and the dish is believed to have symbolized resistance against the hunting restrictions imposed by the Knights of St Johns.
The British, having ruled Malta between 1800 and 1964, have also left their mark on Maltese cuisine. Any Brits visiting the islands may be surprised to find items such as baked beans, crumpets, British cheddar and scones at local shops. At most of the numerous British pubs across the island, you’ll also be able to treat yourself to a Full English Breakfast or plate of Fish n Chips.
Finally, there’s the obvious general influence of Mediterranean cooking. Malta’s rich marine life means high quality fish is plentiful and makes up a great part of their food culture. Squid, oysters, lobster, shrimp, swordfish and the local lumpuki all make for traditional dishes on the islands. Try Zeri’s in St Julians, or Tartarun in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, for some fine Maltese seafood.
If squid, fried rabbit and pastry-heavy dishes don’t sound too appealing, rest assured the islands offer visitors a large number of options for eating cuisines from all over the world. While Malta is yet to catch up on good Mexican, Vietnamese or Scandinavian options – Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants can be found everywhere. Try the rainforest-themed Blue Elephant in St Julians for exceptional Thai food inside the island’s only Hilton (a hotel also tasked with feeding the thousands of tourists during the annual Battle of Malta poker tournament). For sushi lovers, the 5-star Okurama can also be found in St Julians.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you might be feeling a little left out at this point. Fortunately, the last few years has seen a big boom in vegetarian eating in Malta. The Grassy Hopper, found in Valletta and Ta’Xbiex, is the go-to place if you’re looking for healthy, reasonably priced vegan curries, burgers, salads, wraps and smoothies. Dr Juice, another Maltese brand, also offer plenty of healthy, meat-free dishes along with raw, vegan cakes. Juuls, meanwhile, is your best bet for a vegan bite during the nightlife hours. This reggae bar offers a vegan-friendly menu and strawberry mojitos that are famous across the island. For a vegan snack and coffee, pop into Mint on the strand in Sliema.
Finally, one great way to sample Maltese cuisine is by going to one of their traditional food-based festivals or feasts. A notable example includes the Chocolate Festival in the pretty, fortified town of Hamrun each October. Here you’ll find streets filled with stalls selling hand-made chocolate drinks, cakes and sweets. You’ll also see sculptures made by chocolatiers competing against one another. In April, meanwhile, the town of Mgarr holds a strawberry festival where you can enjoy the berry together with pancakes and whipped cream or in muffins and lemonades.
Hopefully this guide has given you an appetite for Malta – an archipelago that has so much to offer its visitors besides its wonderfully diverse and unique cuisine. Discover the magic of Malta for your next holiday, and you’ll be filled with not just delectable food but with some of the most extraordinary history and culture in all of Europe.