Five traditional Maltese dishes that the locals love

A history of invasion dating back to the Neolithic era has given Malta a cuisine that is forever changing. It’s a legacy that Simon Bajada unpicks in his latest recipe book...

4 mins

Over the centuries, many cultures have left something behind in the Maltese kitchen. Local families may have had their say in what goes and what stays, but these influences have steeped together to create unique flavours formed over many occupations. It presents us with the most intriguing ‘minestrone’ of Mediterranean cuisine.

While the island of Sicily has had perhaps the biggest say, with Malta having been an extension of the Sicilian Kingdom for over 400 years, it was the Phoenicians who introduced fishing skills and the Arabs who brought citrus. Later arrived the Knights of the Order of St John, who had grand tastes and added fare such as saffron and ice cream. The French then occupied the islands briefly at the end of the 18th century, but it was the English who left a clearer mark. Ingredients such as cheddar and corned beef crept into traditional recipes, clashing with their Mediterranean roots.

Defining an exact genetic make-up of Maltese food is no easy task, and fraught with anomalies. The origins of the peppered cheeselet (ġbejniet tal-bżar) is a great example of the many possible conundrums, as it resembles cheeses you might find in a food market in provincial France, but is also strikingly similar to shanklish from a store in Aleppo, Syria.

Across the islands, place names hint at ingredients. The isle of Comino, between the mainland and Gozo, is named after the wild cumin found there, whereas the Greeks and Romans once referred to Malta as ‘Melite’, thought to derive from the Greek word for honey – a product still loved here.

As you’d expect from the islands’ history, the Maltese are adaptable in nature. The recent tourism boom saw too many restaurants catering to the fish-and-chip crowd, but this is changing. Maltese food is growing in diversity, with chefs now owning their cuisine and insisting visitors savour its worth. It’s exciting to think of what is still to come.


Five Maltese dishes you should try

Pastizzi (Simon Bajada)

Pastizzi (Simon Bajada)

1. Pastizzi

Pastizzi are enjoyed by late-night revellers, fishermen in the wee hours and office clerks bridging the gap between meals. In short: everyone. The demand for these pastries is inexhaustible, hence the phrase ‘jinbiegħu bħall-pastizzi’ (‘selling like pastizzi’). Typical recipes include the classic ricotta cheese filling as well as the pea version that is thought to have crept in during Britain’s reign in Malta. The main objective is to make a roll of dough with as many buttered layers as possible. I should note that pastizzi are difficult to make, but you’ll find many buttery examples littering the side-street pastizzerijas of Valletta.


Lampuki pie (Simon Bajada)

Lampuki pie (Simon Bajada)

2. Lampuki pie

This is no humble fish pie, but centuries of diversity on a plate. If we were to define Malta by a single recipe, it would be this one: British pastry encasing an Italian-style preparation of tomatoes, vegetables, olives, capers and Malta’s beloved lampuki fish (mahi mahi), which is caught between August and December, when huge schools head north in the Mediterranean. Maltese fishermen arrange rafts of palm leaves in their assigned zones in an attempt to attract these fish, who hide underneath them from the sun. The practice is never far from drama, as families have been known to enter territorial wars over lampuki fishing rights. When the fish is in season, local cooks often make multiple pies to freeze for later. 


Bragioli (Simon Bajada)

Bragioli (Simon Bajada)

3. Bragioli

Translated as ‘beef olives’, this dish of sliced meat encasing a stuffing does not actually contain any olives. Instead, the etymology comes from the old French word ‘alou’, meaning lark, because the shape of the meat rolls was thought to resemble birds without their heads. Each household has its own version, with some using boiled eggs in the stuffing while others braise the ‘olives’ in a tomato ragu – a version that is often seen in restaurants.


Tomato, caper and gbejniet salad (Simon Bajada)

Tomato, caper and gbejniet salad (Simon Bajada)

4. Tomato, caper & ġbejniet salad

Ġbejniet cheeselets are made from sheep’s milk and are likened to ricotta – think crème caramel or silken tofu in its early stages of setting. They can also be dried and preserved (often cured in pepper) to give them a longer life, lending a texture similar to pecorino. I can’t kick the combo of creamy ġbejniet with tomatoes and capers – sweetness countered by a salty punch.

Gozitan pizza (Simon Bajada)

Gozitan pizza (Simon Bajada)

5. Ftira – Gozitan pizza

The age-old recipe for ‘Gozitan pizza’ uses a sourdough flatbread to envelop its fillings. Its roots can be traced back to the village of Nadur on Gozo, where two bakeries (Mekren and Maxokk) still make versions of the original today. These are baked in large wood-fired ovens integral to village life – some locals still use them to cook their Sunday feasts. Toppings include olives, capers and tomatoes, but the most traditional filling is ġbejniet cheese with thinly sliced potato.

Did you know?

As a port nation, the Maltese have always had a boldness when it comes to food. They were among the first Europeans to eat chocolate and drink coffee; it is also said that Malta, along with Spain and southern Italy, was one of the earliest adopters of the tomato – once widely considered to be poisonous. The fruit is rife in its cuisine today, and the Maltese have an unabashed love for kunserva, the islands’ own rich tomato paste.

Malta: Mediterranean Recipes from the Islands

This extract was taken from Simon Bajada’s Malta: Mediterranean Recipes from the Islands (Hardie Grant Books, £26), which is filled with 70 recipes that use ingredients and knowledge passed down by locals.

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