Meal 106: Malta

Situated between Sicily and Tunisia, this tiny cluster of three islands blends Italian and Arab influences with smatterings of the legacies of the empires that ruled over the centuries. As a linguist I’m fascinated by the Maltese language, which derives its structure and pronunciation from Arabic, yet takes plenty of vocabulary from Italo-Romance and other languages. With food, it’s the opposite: the structure comes from the north, with breads, stews, and pies reminiscent of the cuisine of southern Italy, but with spices and other accents clearly from North Africa.

Guests included Julie, Levi, Trish, Ericc, Michael, Katerina, Annette, and Sam.

Ftira | Round bread | Recipe

This recipe is a true winner. The sourdough affords tang and structure, the yeast lends big air holes reminiscent of ciabatta, and the olive oil reminds you that we’re unabashedly Mediterranean. But my favorite part is the ring shape, which ensures an even bake in less time. The crust is light and crispy rather than being too toothsome, which makes this a perfect bread for…

Ħobż biż-żejt | Open-faced sandwich | Recipe

Is it possible to improve upon bruschetta? Apparently. What launches this fantastic appetizer/snack into dream-about-it-later territory is the kunserva, a rich, sweet tomato spread that tastes like tons of tomatoes squished into a jam, because that’s essentially what it is. Other Mediterranean staples — capers, onions, garlic, parsley, and especially olive oil — make this into a salad on a bread slice, and with the above-mentioned bread, the textures play perfectly. (You can also add canned anchovies or tuna to make this a light meal on its own.)

Bigilla | Broad bean dip | Recipe

A pretty straightforward hummus-esque dip. Boost or diminish oil or garlic to your taste.

Stuffat tal-fenek | Rabbit stew | Recipe

Although it’s got little land to speak of, apparently they’ve got rabbits enough to make this the national dish. It’s a homey affair, a straightforward stew with tomatoes, carrots and potatoes whose flavor comes from the quality of the ingredients rather than any special technique. This preparation showcases rabbit’s subtly nutty (or at least that’s how I perceive it) flavor, and a long slow simmer turns this somewhat tough meat into something that flakes in the bowl.

Torta tal-lampuki | Mahi-mahi pie | Recipe

It’s often a challenge to find the right fish for a dish from another continent, but it turns out that this one is common to much of the world. The lampuka that’s found off Maltese shores in the fall is the same species as dolphinfish, dorado, and mahi-mahi. A very common preparation is in this pie which certainly betrays some Arab influence: in among the pan-fried fish and the vegetables you’ll find judicious quantities of raisins, walnuts, and olives. It was a little bit odd, as we’re not very used to fish pies, let alone with sweet elements, but certainly not bad.

L-għadam tal-mejtin | Bone-shaped cookies with marzipan marrow | Recipe

While there are several other folks in the fellowship of “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to cook one meal for every country in the world,” I really try not to see what the ones who are ahead of me have done, since I’d rather challenge myself to do original research. But when Sasha posted this recipe on her Global Table Adventure Facebook page, timed for the Day of the Dead on which this meal fell, I just had to make it. Plus, as you’ll see in the recipe, this is a special one that can’t be found elsewhere online.

I’m normally not a big fan of multi-stage piecework, but this was worth it, even considering I had to make the marzipan from scratch since I couldn’t find it in the grocery store. (Actually, assuming you have almond meal and a food processor, it’s a cinch to make.) The marzipan “marrow” is studded with the exotic aromas of cardamom and clove, and the pastry “bone” features the brigthness of lemon zest. But best of all, the bone shape is a little bit macabre and a lot bit fun.

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