Two events this week prompt my post about Maltese traditional food. The Malta Standards Authority (MSA) announced it is carrying out a survey over the next two months to ‘clearly establish the eating habits of the Maltese’. Then, my son told me that he needed to dress up like a Maltese villager of yesteryear (flat cap & waistcoat) and serve traditional hobz biz zejt (Maltese bread smeared with tomato paste, olives, onions, tuna and capers) at his end-of-term open day.
The common theme that links the two is a feeling that in Malta we need to return to our roots when it comes to our diet if we are to pass on the dubious honour of our current high rankings in the world’s obesity indices.
Undoubtedly, the Maltese diet has changed drastically in the past 50 years, and now includes all the fast, convenience, additive-laden, pre-packed foods found across the western world. So much for the Mediterranean diet. But, the hobz biz-zejt lives on strongly in snack bars along with qassata and pastizzi (ricotta and pea-filled pastry turnovers) with their interesting blend of healthy filling and carb-laden pastry.
While even the old-style Maltese diet would have included (‘bad’) refined carbs in bread and pasta, it would have been off-set by a larger proportion of fresh fish, meat and vegetables. If you add reasonable amounts of fresh meat or fish to your weekly shop here, the total bill shoots up. We may be surrounded by sea, but its fruits are costly. Perhaps in days gone by, people caught or bred more of the protein themselves and kept the costs down that way.
If there’s one thing we need public health campaigns to do, it’s to show the regular Maltese family how to eat cheaply, cooking fresh meat and fish and leaving out the majority of refined carbs and processed foods. A glance at the list of traditional dishes below, shows that we must have had this knack here once upon a time! As in most of the Mediterranean, meat would have been eked out padded with vegetables and with its juices moped up with crusty bread.
All the recipes below required cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients – that is a good start to eating healthier! Bear in mind, that in the past, the Maltese diet would have included desserts and pastries as a treat on high days, feasts and Sundays only, and not as a regular snack with a cafe pit stop.
Here’s a selection of some traditional recipes, but whether they are cooked at home much? We’ll await the findings of that food diary survey:
Lampuki pie – late summer to autumn’s seasonal fish – lampuka (dolphin fish). Also served as shallow fried steaks.
Bragioli – beef olives (thin strips of beef rolled and filled with bacon, bread crumbs, parsley all bound together with an egg), served in red wine and tomato sauce.
Spaghetti with Sea Urchins (Rizzi)
Ricotta Pie – goats cheese and ricotta mixed with some broad beans and parsley on pastry base.
Rabbit stew – with olives, red wine, bay leaves, onion, garlic, tomato puree.
Spinach and Tuna Pie – onion, garlic, anchovy, pastry base, olives, tuna, chopped spinach
Stuffed marrow – mince beef filled marrow rings, baked
‘Widow’s Soup‘ (soppa ta’ l’armla) – this vegetable soup and other minestre are a mainstay of the Maltese kitchen. They are still cooked here big time; I smell various soups or broths in my village street most days.
Bigilla – fava bean paste. A homely dip you find ready-made in supermarkets, and which features also on wine bar menus today.
Timpana – baked macaroni (kind of lasagna using mince beef (sometimes lamb), but with pastry top.
Rice balls (arancini)– chicken or beef mince mixed in with rice to form ball coated in bread crumbs and then deep fried.
Desserts & Pastries
Most desserts and sweets you find in Malta, now as in the past, are directly inherited from our neighbour Sicily. Read about them and their history in our dedicated post on Maltese sweets.
Kannoli – deep-fried sweet pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta, and sometimes candied peel.
Cassata – cakes made with almond paste and filled with sweet ricotta
Mqaret – small packages of sweet pastry filled with a date mixture and served mouth blisteringly hot!
Photo: Peter Grima (Know Malta) – he has the recipe for honey rings here!