The Maltese have a saying that betrays a key element of their culture—kul u tpaxxa, ghax minn hawn ghal gol kaxxa! Loosely translated, it means eat and be merry, for the grave beckons. In other words, food is top of mind in this seductive island nation.
Malta has a distinctive food culture thanks to its mild climate, proximity to fresh seafood from the Mediterranean, and mix of cultural influences, including Greek, Italian, French, and British. Food is reasonably priced and, if you make some friends on the islands, you’ll quickly discover that any occasion is a pretext for feasting. To make the most of your meals, use this guide to Malta’s essential dishes and where to find them.
Pastizzi are the ultimate Maltese street food, served in every village and town in the country—typically for less than €1. Shaped like diamonds, the flaky pastries are traditionally filled with ricotta cheese but sometimes come stuffed with peas and spinach, tuna, rabbit, or, during Holy Week, spinach and anchovy. Some say that Malta’s best pastizzi can be found at Crystal Palace, an iconic pastizzeria that’s been a mainstay in Rabat for more than a century, but rest assured you’ll find delicious options almost everywhere. Just follow your nose and look for the lines.
Stuffatt Tal-Fenek (Rabbit Stew)
Behold the national dish of Malta, one that every proud Maltese person is fed practically from birth. Rabbits were introduced to Malta by the Phoenicians, but their popularity exploded during Roman times, as the Romans believed that eating baby rabbits made women more beautiful. They fell out of fashion during the Knights of Saint John era from 1530 to 1798, when the hunting of rabbits was banned, but became a favorite once again after they started to decimate farmers’ crops and hunting was reintroduced. All of this means that, while in Malta, you have to try to attend a fenkata, an elaborate feast (particularly in the village of Mgarr) involving prolific amounts of rabbit. If you miss the chance, you at least have to eat Maltese rabbit stew. Every family has its own secret recipe, but most combine red wine, tomato paste, olive oil, garlic, onions, bay leaves, and, of course, rabbit. The best place to sample stuffatt tal-fanek is in the home of someone’s nanna, but in a pinch, go to Tal-Petut, just outside Valletta in Birgu, where the dish features on the prix-fixe Rabbit Classic Menu.
Torta Tal-Lampuki (Lampuki Pie)
Lampuki (mahi mahi) is Malta’s unofficial national fish, but you have to order it between August and December, when schools migrate nearby, to get it fresh. Local fishermen have been using the same method to catch lampuki since Roman times, weaving palm tree fronds into flat rafts, which they take out to sea along with their traditional fishing boats. When the fish cluster underneath the rafts to seek shade from the afternoon sun, the fishermen cast their nets, then sell their catch to local restaurants. You can get lampuki several different ways, but instead of going with the most common preparation (pan-fried in tomato sauce with capers, olives, and lemon), opt for lampuki pie. The dish features a nice mix of Malta’s biggest cultural influences—English (savory pies are practically a religion in the United Kingdom), Arab (mint, lemon peel, and raisins), and Italian (tomatoes, capers, and olives)—all wrapped up in a flaky pastry crust. Try it at the popular Café Jubilee, which has two locations on Malta and one on the sister island of Gozo.
Hobza (Maltese Bread)
If you ask Maltese expats which food they miss the most, many will say a loaf of good, old-fashioned Maltese bread, either drizzled with olive oil, rubbed with tomatoes, or topped with olives. The traditional hobza is akin to a sourdough, with a dark-brown crust and springy dough that’s delightfully chewy. Its cousin, the ftira, is flatter and softer, shaped like a ring and often topped with sardines, tuna, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, capers, or olives. Bread is cheap in Malta, thanks to government subsidies, but that doesn’t mean it’s taken lightly. In fact, the Maltese government recently petitioned UNESCO to recognize Maltese bread on its cultural heritage list. You can get a great version of ftira at Nenu the Artisan Baker, a wonderful eatery founded by the owner of Malta’s popular Maypole bakery chain, but you should also make a pilgrimage to Qormi, a town in central Malta that’s known for its nearly 50 bakeries. It’s here that locals celebrate their love of bread every October at the Lejl f’Casal Fornaro (Quormi Bread Festival) with traditional music, art, and food stalls.
Soppa Tal-Armla (Widow’s Soup)
A satisfying choice, particularly in the winter months, this Maltese staple is a soup of potatoes, carrots, peas, garlic, cauliflower, beans, and sometimes gbejniet (goat cheese) or ricotta left melting in the broth. Its name derives from the fact that the ingredients are common and cheap, so even widows can afford to make it. Order it at L-Ghonnella, a traditional restaurant in an old cellar beneath the 17th-century Spinola Palace building in the seaside town of Saint Julian’s.
Timpana is best described as macaroni with meat sauce, baked in a pie. A nod to Malta’s Italian influences, it’s essentially a second cousin to baked ziti, but with boiled eggs, sometimes chicken livers, and flaky pastry crust for good measure. Get your fix at Gululu in Saint Julian’s or Ta’ Marija, a lively eatery in central Malta that also has great rabbit stew. (Ta means “belonging to” in Maltese.)
By now, you’ve gathered that you’re not going to lose any weight while in Malta, so don’t skimp on dessert. For a traditional treat, save room for some imqaret, a rectangular-shaped sweet made with pastry and date filing. Date pastries are popular across the Middle East and the delicious imqaret speak to Malta’s Arab influence. Sometimes you’ll see people selling the treats from stalls on the street, but you can also find delicious imqaret at Emanuel’s Bakery in Qormi, Malta’s bread mecca.
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