Maltese food is full of heart and flavour

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Food in Malta is a pretty big deal. The Maltese love food and their cuisine is so full of flavour it’s undeniable that passion, love and dedication are the key ingredients.

Very much inspired by local produce, traditional recipes passed on through the generations and having similarities in flavour influences to neighbouring countries, yet unique in its approach to freshly available ingredients, traditional Maltese food is something you just need to try.

 

 

Although the Maltese on average seem to be hitting relatively high figures on the weighing scales compared to other countries within the EU, Maltese food itself is genuine and healthy, although it can be fairly calorie-dense, to put it mildly. It’s the quantity of meals that are served at home and nowadays the readily available and relatively cheap fast food options that are causing most harm there.

Savoury dishes make up for the largest part of Maltese cuisine, although the Maltese definitely know how to work with pastries and sweets.

Being a country surrounded by the sea, fish is traditionally the most popularly used protein, although beef and pork also feature in a few of the most popular traditional Maltese dishes.

Popular street food in Malta

Maltese bread is fluffy from the inside with a hard crust1. Maltese bread

If there’s one type of food that Maltese people abroad miss when they think of home, it’s Maltese bread.

Traditionally baked Ħobż tal-Malti has a hard and crunchy crust on the outside and soft and fluffy white bread from the inside, and tastes nothing like a regular loaf of sliced white bread you might be used to from your local supermarket.

This big (or smaller – it comes in different sizes) round loaf of bread is usually bought whole or sliced and is sometimes the star carbohydrate of a dish and other times the mop that helps you get the last bits of that thick, delicious Maltese stew you just can’t get enough of.

In fact, it’s served with most meals that allow for ‘mopping’ at the dinner table and is often served in local restaurants to accompany your meal as well.

Most Maltese people talk about the flavour of their bread, to me, as a foreigner, it’s more the texture and the contrast between crunch and soft airy centre that made me fall in love with it.

The one downside is that it doesn’t last for very long. Buy a loaf on one day and it’ll taste stale the next day.

That’s not necessarily an issue, though. You can find Maltese bread in every local “minimarket” (the logically smaller size of a supermarket, selling the everyday basics).

Traditionally, the village of Qormi is known as the place where the best bakers fire up their ovens, but most local bakers (like Gormina (pron Jor-mina) in St. Paul’s Bay) will have delicious, freshly baked Maltese bread for sale in the morning. (They’ll be a-baking at 5am to serve the early risers). Local grocery shops receive a fresh supply daily, sometimes in the afternoon as well to serve those who like crispy fresh bread for supper.

Hobz biz-Zejt is a perfect snack based on Maltese breadĦobż biż-żejt

Prepared for lunch and the most common way that Maltese bread is sold as street food is Ħobż biż-żejt (bread with oil, literally translated) specifically that’s the most popular way in which bread is consumed locally.

Sliced Maltese bread with extra virgin olive oil, tomato paste and a pinch of salt and pepper, often dressed up with ingredients like tuna and capers, make for a very tasty snack, particularly so in summer.

The ftira

Ħobż tal-Malti isn’t the only type of Maltese bread that’s popularly served, though. The ftira is a flat baked, usually portion-sized bread (although bigger varieties are baked as well) that shares its crusty outside with a regular loaf of Maltese bread. It’s a popular option in lunchrooms and is prepared with a variety of local ingredients, often prepared to your tastes.

2. Pastizzi and other savoury pastry snacks

Before McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC came around in Malta in the 1990s, fast food for the Maltese meant walking down to the nearest pastizzeria to grab some super tasty (but also amazingly greasy) savoury snacks, that form the cornerstone of street food in Malta.

The most popular snack are pastizzi – fluffy pastry formed in specific shapes and stuffed with either ricotta cheese or a paste of peas (piżelli in Maltese).

You’ll also find the most oily square pizza slices (very tasty and fluffy nevertheless) and typically Maltese snacks like Qassatat (different type of pastry stuffed with cheese, peas and spinach), sausage rolls (you get to choose the cheese-filled type called Wudy, an Italian brand, for an extra dose of evil), Arancini (balls of tomato-flavoured rice with a breaded crust) and Timpana (a popular pasta oven dish).

3. Fish

Fish has always been popular in Malta, being an island where fish is relatively easy to come by in its surrounding waters. You’ll be able to find all sorts of local fish served fresh daily in local restaurants, but there are specific types of fish that are traditionally more popular among the Maltese.

The first is Lampuka, (a species of dolphin fish also referred to as Mahi-mahi), which is caught seasonally and available as fresh catch during the period of 15th of August (the start date of Lampuki (plural) fishing season in Malta, also a public holiday) through to the end of December. You’ll still be able to taste Lampuka at other times of the year, but it obviously won’t be as fresh. Still worth your while though! Although available as a fried fish, it’s pretty popularly served in pie form as well (Torta tal-Lampuki).

Another type of fish to try is locally caught swordfish, prepared as a dish called Pixxispad (grilled swordfish steak). Fried in olive oil, lemon added – Super tasty.

You’ll also find a few species of seabream, seabass and grouper, often cooked grilled on the skin or al cartoccio (Italian term that means something like baked in foil) with olive oil, lemon, salt/pepper seasoning and sometimes capers. They’ll often ask you which method you prefer, in fact.

4. Rabbit

Although most people outside of Malta probably think of rabbits as “a nice pet for the kids”, in Malta rabbit is more commonly served as a dish, most popularly fried (sometimes with spaghetti with tomato sauce and peas) or as a stew (Stuffat Tal-Fenek).

It’s important to note that I’ve never come across anyone in Malta who keeps rabbits as pets until Christmas comes around. Rabbits are bred OR kept as pets (and not consumed).

For most Europeans it’ll be a tough sell, but it really isn’t a big deal unless you’re vegan or vegetarian. It’s actually very tasty. Often likened to chicken by foreigner it’s a rich flavour and it’s understandable why it’s a popular choice among the locals. Dining is sometimes organised to be specifically for rabbit, called a fenkata.

Two tips from this foreigner:

  1. I might be the unluckiest consumer of rabbit on the island, but I regularly find small bone shards and have so far been lucky to escape without a trip to the dentist’s. Take small bites.
  2. Some restaurants or bars in smaller villages that serve rabbit may serve the dish with kidneys and liver chunks included. If that’s a bridge too far for you as well, you can politely verify whether it’s served that way and asked not to be.

5. Kinnie

Kinnie is a soft drink produced only in Malta and it’s a bit like Marmite or Bovril if you’re British. Don’t worry, I’m not referring to the flavour, I’m referring to the fact that you either love Kinnie or you hate it. Personally I really like it, particularly on a hot summer’s day.

It’s a drink that has a bittersweet flavour that it owes to a particular type of bitter orange (referred to as Mediterranean chinotto) that you’re unlikely to have tasted before and is definitely worth trying. It’s also a great mixer to try with spirits like vodka and rum and usually tastes best cold.

If you want to go “pro”, there’s a variant called Kinnie Zest, which has a stronger, more pronounced flavour. Similar to the original, just stronger (and either better or worse depending on your personal taste).

6. Ċisk

Ċisk (pron. Ch-isk) is the most popular (locally brewed) beer that’s an easy, light drink that’s generally liked by foreign beer lovers. Perhaps not the smoothest of beers, it has a gentle flavour and is very refreshing on a warm day. Although many international brands are available on the island, most will opt to enjoy the local tipple.

Aside from the original, low-carb (Cisk Excel), fruity flavoured (Chill Lemon and Chill Berry) and a few other variations are available. The same producers (Farsons) produce different ales as well.

 

 

Other traditional Maltese foods and dishes to try

In no particular order, here are a few other dishes that are worth trying if you happen to find them on a menu or you love cooking and decide to be adventurous.

7. Maltese Olives

Olive groves speckle the countryside in Malta, bringing forth a huge quantity of the succulent orbs every year. They are often served up alongside bread before a meal or are used to make local, fresh olive oil which is a staple ingredient in Maltese cuisine.

8. Capers

Like olives, capers are farmed in abundance throughout the hilly rural parts of Malta, offering a salty addition to a snack or a topping for crispy bruschetta. The best thing about the Maltese capers is their size – the ideal climate encourages them to grow to enormous sizes.

9. Gbejniet

Like in most Mediterranean cuisines, cheese is a star player of many dishes. Throughout the island there is an assortment of cheeses available, from mild hard cheeses to softer, stronger flavours. Ġbejniet is a popular choice – it’s a local sheep’s cheese that is often served up as part of a sharing platter.

10. More exotic proteins

Apart from rabbit there are a few other proteins you may find on the menu at a few restaurants serving Maltese food. I haven’t tried any of these myself, but perhaps you’re more adventurous than I am. Here goes:

  • Quail, a locally caught type of bird, is usually served fried with vegetables. It’s a small bird but apparently makes for a tasty meal.
  • Snails, usually served in a bowl on their own, cooked with herbs and spices. Eaten with a toothpick.
  • Horse meat, cooked in a stew to tenderize the otherwise quite tough meat.

11. Aljotta

With easy access to a range of deliciously fresh seafood, fish features heavily in the Maltese cuisine and Aljotta is regional hearty fish stew, thickened out with garlic, tomatoes, and rice.

Bragioli or beef olives is a popular Maltese dish12. Bragioli (beef olives)

The Maltese love their meat, and it features heavily in most dishes throughout the day. Bragioli is a popular beef dish with a difference. It boasts a mouth-watering concoction of bacon, egg, and garlic dipped in breadcrumbs and wrapped in tender slices of beef before being slow cooked in a rich sauce of wine.

13. Maltese sausage

Traditional Maltese sausages (Zalzett Malti) pack a flavour punch of their own. Cooked together with aromatic coriander, they provide a little more depth than the average sausage.

13. Bigilla

Mezze platters are an important part of Maltese culture, just like many other Mediterranean cuisines, and Bigilla is a prominent character in these. Served alongside crusty bread and olive oil, this broad bean pate provides a tasty accompaniment to most dishes.

Maltese sausage as a main ingredient in a Maltese dish14. Maltese sausage

Traditional Maltese sausages (Zalzett Malti) pack a flavour punch of their own. Cooked together with aromatic coriander, they provide a little more depth than the average sausage.

15. Minestra (Minestrone soup)

Hearty soups characterise Maltese menus in the winter, and Minestra is one of the most common varieties. It’s a thick broth created with multiple fresh, seasonal vegetables, and is always served alongside thick slices of rustic bread and olive oil.

16. Soppa tal-Armla (Widow’s soup)

Another typically Maltese soup, Soppa tal-Armla is a rich, tasty soup with potatoes, carrots, garlic, peas, cauliflower and ġbejniet (Maltese cheeselets) amongst other ingredients. Why is it called Widow’s soup? It refers to the simplicity of this soup, with ingredients even a poor widow could afford to buy.

17. Broad bean and pasta soup

Making the most of Kusksu, tiny pasta shapes that are produced in Malta, Kusksu Bil-Ful combines flavourful broad beans with herbs and the omnipresent tomato paste that characterises so many of Malta’s dishes.

18. Imqarrun il-Forn

This Italian-inspired pasta dish (Imqarrun il-Forn) makes use of macaroni, which is baked to perfection in a creamy, cheesy sauce. The top is often crisped up, providing a contrast between soft and crunchy textures – a delicious filling dish on every level.

19. Spaghetti with sea urchins

The magnificent underwater world that surrounds Malta is home to some unusual creatures which often find themselves being served up at dinner time. Sea urchins are a national delicacy, commonly served up on a bed of spaghetti for a fusion of Italian and Maltese cuisine in a dish called Spaghetti Rizzi.

20. Stuffed marrow

Marrow might be an unusual ingredient, but in Malta its rich flavours are brought out in this dish (Qarabaghli Mimli fil-Forn) where marrow rings are stuffed with tender mince beef and baked to delicious perfection.

21. Spinach and tuna pie

The Maltese love their pies, particularly in the cooler months. Tuna and spinach are popular ingredients throughout Maltese cuisine, so it seems like a no-brainer that they’re paired together in this dish. Spinach and tuna pie combines the meaty flavours of tuna with spinach, onion, anchovies, olives, and garlic, which is then layered smoothly onto a moist pastry base.

22. Stuffed Aubergines

The base ingredient for Brungiel Mimli are juicy aubergines which are then stuffed with tender beef or pork mince before being baked in the oven, resulting in a layered light bite with a crispy topping.

23. Oven Roast

For a wholesome, homely dish, tuck into a Bħal fil-Forn. It was traditionally a peasant’s dish many years ago because it combines such simple ingredients – either chicken, beef, or pork is cooked together with potatoes in an onion jus.

Maltese traditional sweets

24. Prinjolata

You’re unlikely to find a messier sweet than the Prinjolata, which is a small mound-like cake that’s made of a hotchpotch of sugary ingredients, coated with cream and decorated with melted chocolate splatters, pine nuts and green and red glacé cherries. It’s made specifically around Carnival time, apparently intended as one last excess of sugary goodness before the start of Lent.

25. Kwareżimal (Lent)

Kwarezimal is a traditional Maltese sweet for LentDuring Lent itself, you’ll find that Kwareżimal is widely available as an alternative to regular sweets, part of the sacrifice made by Christians at this time of year. Although nowadays sugar is avoided during Lent, Kwareżimal, a biscuit type of sweet that contains sugar, was introduced by the Knights of Malta, in a time where sugar was seen as a type of spice. Kwareżimal have a strong taste of almonds and a mix of spices and are drizzled in honey. It’s not necessarily a must to taste – it’s a modest type of sweet that suits the time of year well.

26. Qagħaq tal-għasel (Honey rings)

With their circular shape and black treacle filling, Qagħaq tal-għasel are a popular treat originally made around Christmas time but can be had all year round nowadays, on sale at most supermarkets. Although they’re referred to as honey rings (għasel translates to honey), Qagħaq tal-għasel contains no honey and come in different sizes. Great to have with a cup of tea.

27. Figolla

Figolla is a traditional Maltese sweet for EasterWhen Easter comes around, grocery shops and bakeries are dominated by commercial ‘egg’ type sweets but equally so the traditional Figolli (plural). It’s a flat cake, often shaped in the form of a lamb, rabbit or more generic, playfully shaped specifically baked to celebrate Easter. It’s filled with a thick layer of marzipan and decorated with molten chocolate or icing and often half of a chocolate Easter egg. Very sweet, but also very tasty.

28. Għadam tal-Mejtin

Bones of the Dead is the literal translation of the name of this sweet (Għadam tal-Mejtin), baked around All Souls’ Day, celebrated on the 2nd of November. Although it’s a pretty macabre name for a sweet, these bone-shaped biscuits, filled with marzipan marrow are delicious, with a similar filling to Figolli (although the final product has a distinct taste).

Great recipe here: Maltese Bone Cookies with Marzipan Marrow by Sasha Martin.

29. Imqaret

Freshly fried Imqaret - a typical Maltese sweet.The Maltese love their sweet treats, and you’ll notice plenty of patisseries lining the streets of the towns. Like with savoury snacks, many of the sweeter dishes are also packaged in a flaky layer of pastry and Imqaret is no different, featuring an outer wrapper of fried pastry stuffed with a thick layer of date paste. This should absolutely feature on your list of food to try.

30. Biskuttini tal-Lewz

Biskuttini tal-Lewz is another popular sweet treat amongst the Maltese, and you can find these throughout the patisseries and bakeries on the island. It’s a very simple dish but packs a punch with its flavour, combining the creamy taste of almonds in a soft macaroon.

31. Kannoli

These sweets closely resemble sweets produced in Sicily (Italy) and although they’re not purely Maltese, they’re fairly popular and worth having a taste of. Kannoli are basically pastry-made, crunchy tubes, filled with an unusual mix of sweet and sour. It’s a popular pastry dish, combining ricotta, dark chocolate, cherries, citrus fruit, and nuts in a buttery, flaky case.

32. Cassata

Malta has numerous dishes that come out to play at certain times of the year. At Christmas, you’re likely to see Cassata on dessert menus, which is a light and airy ricotta filled sponge that has been infused with the aromatic flavours of marzipan, also “borrowed” from Italy.

Where to get a taste

Local restaurants that serve genuine Maltese food

Here’s a selection of some of the top places to taste traditionally prepared Maltese food. Looking for more options? Have a look at my Top 50 Malta Restaurants and Eating Out Guide.

Nenu the Artisan Baker

Location: 143, St Dominic Street, Valletta
Opening hours: Tue-Sat – Lunch from 11:45 – 15:30h and Dinner from 18:00h – 23:30h, Sun – Lunch only, from 11:45 – 16:00h
Contact details: +356 22581535 | info@nenuthebaker.com

Nenu the Artisan Baker is a highly popular restaurant in Valletta, offering a wide variety of typically Maltese foods and dishes that go beyond baked foods. Very tasty, genuine ingredients and even the restaurant itself is a good establishment for a quality dinner

When I was there with a few Maltese friends there seemed to be a sense of nostalgia towards some of the dishes they had last tasted when cooked by their Nanna (grandmother). There’s no better rating of the quality of Maltese food than that, I suppose!

Dar Il-Bniet

Location: Triq il-Kbira, Dingli
Opening hours: Mon – Thu 10:00h – 15:00h and 19:00h – 22:00h, Fri – Sat 12:00h – 15:00h and 18:30h – 22:00h, Sun 12:00h – 15:00h and 16:00h – 20:00h (Afternoon tea)
Contact details: +356 2762 0727 | info@diarilbniet.com
Cost: €€

Dar Il-Bniet is something a little bit special. Located in the village of Dingli, in a rural part of Malta (South of Mdina and Rabat), this family-run restaurants serves delicious, traditionally prepared and genuine Maltese food with ingredients sourced from their own crops. You’ll be getting a taste of Maltese food prepared according to age-old traditions with ingredients that are fresh of the land surrounding the village.

It may well be the best place in Malta to try Maltese dishes and although not centrally located it’s fairly easy to reach by public transport as well as by car.

Ta` Mena Estate

Location: Rabat Road, Xaghra (on the main road between Victoria and Marsalforn)
Opening hours: Mon-Sat 09:30-17:00h
Contact details: +356 21564939 | info@tamena-gozo.com
Cost: €€

Ta` Mena isn’t really a restaurant, but a local agricultural company that grow their own vines, olives and more types of produce in Gozo.

They organise a tour of the estate and food tasting for smaller groups or individuals which lasts around two hours, on Thursdays at 4:30pm (June-August) and Saturdays at 1pm (all year round). You’ll need to book in advance for this. Highly recommended!

Otherwise, during opening hours you can always visit the Estate (free of charge) and buy from their selection of local produce. Their Marsamena wines, particularly the red blend, are of high quality and I usually buy a few bottles when I’m Gozo (although they’re also available in liquor stores and wine shops in Malta).

Tips on getting a taste of specific Maltese food

What are the best places to try Maltese bread?

Traditionally, the village of Qormi is known as the place where the best bakers fire up their ovens, but most local bakers (like Gormina (pron Jor-mina) in St. Paul’s Bay) will have delicious, freshly baked Maltese bread for sale in the morning. (They’ll be a-baking at 5am to serve the early risers). Local grocery shops receive a fresh supply daily, sometimes in the afternoon as well to serve those who like crispy fresh bread for supper.

To try ftajjar (plural of ftira), go to:

  • Olympic bar in Triq il-Kostituzzjoni, Mosta (across the road from the Mosta dome church and its parking area) has a nice selection of ftajjar with fresh ingredients and full of flavour. It’s the type of place that’s rarely ever quiet and popular mostly among the locals.
  • il-Forn in Birgu (also called Vittoriosa) serves ftajjar freshly baked and warm with a variety of toppings. This place is a crossover between a restaurant, wine bar and art gallery all in one, although they only open during the evening, from 7pm until midnight or so. Highly recommended.

What’s the best place to try rabbit?

The two places I’ve had and enjoyed rabbit are:

What’s the best place to try locally caught, fresh fish?

Although I eat fish from time to time there isn’t a specific place I’d recommend to you.  in St. Paul’s Bay I’ve tried, and the food was good, but I got charged a “tourist rate”. If you’re staying there or in Bugibba/Qawra and don’t like travel it’ll be a tasty meal but an expensive one also.

Whenever I set out to go out to a fish restaurant I go to either Marsaxlokk or Marsalforn if I happen to be in Gozo. Both places, particularly the first, are known for their communities of fishermen and the daily fresh catch is freshest there and having tried various restaurants I don’t know of any that won’t serve you well.

What’s the best place to try Ċisk (local beer)?

Most of the popular versions of Ċisk are widely available, but if you’re really into beer tasting you’ll be able to try all varieties as well as other local (and international) beers at the Beer Festival, held towards the end of July at Ta` Qali National Park.

What’s the best place to try Kinnie (local soft drink)?

Kinnie is widely available in bars, restaurants and local grocery shops.

What’s the best place to try pastizzi?

Crystal Palace, a small bar in Rabat right next to the Roman Villa, is known by the locals as THE place for pastizzi, whatever time of day it is. It’s a small family run businesses that’s open during most hours of the day and always has fresh pastizzi on offer. I don’t recall them having many of the other varieties but it’s pastizzi you’ll want to try primarily – the rest isn’t anything special, to me at least.

What’s the best place to get fresh local produce and crops?

On Tuesdays and Saturdays, early in the morning, some of the local farmers set up the market stalls at Ta` Qali and a wide variety of fruit and veg is for sale that’s fresh from the land. The earlier you go, the better the quality (although I usually go later in the morning and am never disappointed) and the prices you pay will be significantly lower than if you were to buy your fruit and veg from a hawker in one of the tourist hotspots. Everyone speaks English so there’s no need to worry about that!

Looking for more restaurant recommendations?

I put together a nice selection of personal recommendations for restaurants in Malta here.

Try Maltese food at home

Not looking to visit Malta anytime soon or just curious to try and cook a few traditional Maltese dishes yourself? The locally developed website http://www.ilovefood.com.mt/ is a great place to start!


32 Examples of traditional Maltese food and the best places to get a taste.