Because of its strategic location and long history of settlement and colonial rule, Malta is a melting pot of cultures and traditions. As anywhere, you can see this best in the food.
Maltese food is inspired by neighboring Sicily, mainland Italy, North Africa and the Middle East. There are also indigenous traditions, and even British, European, and Australian influences from the colonial history and the acquired tastes of returned emigrants.
On my recent trip to Malta, I spent most of my time on the rural Island of Gozo, which has a distinct cultural identity and some unique culinary traditions of their own. On the first night of my stay, we ate with the well-known Gozitan (“of Gozo”) chef, George Borg. George was born and raised on the island and is passionate about preserving the country’s culinary heritage. He taught us about the typical ingredients, dishes, and food customs and gave us a great introduction to the local foods. Many of the local ingredients were made by rustic, small producers, sometimes in home kitchens. I got the sense that this was the way local people have been cooking and eating for years.
Here are some things to know about Maltese and Gozitan food:
One of the most distinctive foods that we ate at every single meal was gbejniet or “cheeselets”, small rounds of sheep or goats milk cheese molded from tiny round plastic baskets. When gbejniet are fresh, they are pure white, soft, and creamy. When the cheese is pressed and aged, it yellows and becomes flaky. Sometimes the chees is then soaked in vinegar, strained, and then coated with black pepper and salt. Hosts serve a mix of the fresh and the aged cheeses at the beginning of every meal. The fresh cheeselets are used instead of riccota as a filling for Maltese ravioli.
Chef Borg told us that there are no large cheese producers on the island of Gozo, so local people pick up their cheese from the home kitchens of local vendors. Because he does catering and cooks for big events, he has 5 or 6 small local cheese producers that he calls on to help him meet the demand.
Tomatoes and Tomato Preserves
Malta, and Gozo in particular, is well known for their tomatoes. Tomatoes and tomato products are one of the country’s biggest agricultural exports. Kunserva is a very thick tomato paste typically served as a starter before the meal. It’s bright, sweet, and smooth–nothing like the canned stuff I’m used to buying at home.
Kunserva is spread on crisp slices of bread, and then drizzled with local olive oil. Local people produce it by drying fresh tomato puree in the sun for at least 12 days.
When the tomatoes are grown in a gorgeous location like this, you can see why the product is special!
Olives, capers, and various pickled stuff
Like other Mediterranean regions, Malta eats a lot of olives, capers, pickled vegetables and seafood.
Capers deserve particular attention because they are everywhere and on everything. It so happens that Capers are one of the very few pickled foods I never liked. I’ve always thought they were too salty, too slimy, and sometimes fishy. But the capers in Malta surprised me. The were fat, juicy, and the perfect balance between salty and tart. I ate a lot of them on pasta dishes and sprinkled on bread with kunserva.
By the way, do you know what a caper is? I didn’t, before this trip. It’s the pickled flower bud from this shrubby plant (Capparis spinosa). It grows wild all over Malta.
A Maltese pickle and marinated salad vendor at a farmers market.
Meat and Fish
Stewed rabbit (stuffat tal-fenek) is Malta’s national dish, which is believed to have been brought to the islands from France. Various pork dishes are common, and lampuki (mahi mahi) and qarnit (octopus) are common seafood.
Savory, Doughy Stuff
Malta makes a lot of variants on flaky pastry like this cheese pie…
and the much loved pastizzi, a popular street food. Pastizzi is a flaky pastry dough filled with either a pea curry, or ricotta cheese. These are sold everywhere and are very cheap (50-75 euro cents = less than $1 US).
Sweets and Desserts
I didn’t try many local desserts, but imqarat was one I found that I loved. It’s a popular deep fried pastry filled with date paste. Street vendors sell it at festivals and markets (I found it at the Marsaxlokk fish market).
One of the most uniquely Maltese fruits is the prickly pear. The white variety of this cactus fruit grows everywhere in the island, and is used to make jam and infuse liquor.
Beer and Wine
Wine making on the Maltese islands dates back to the Phoenicians, but the industry has grown the most since the 1970s. Maltese winemakers use many international grape varieties, but also two indigenous varietals, Gellewza (red) and Ghirghentina (white).
The Maltese light lager available everywhere on the islands is called Cisk. Seeking something with a bit more flavor, I was glad to find Gozo also has one craft brewer, Lord Chambray.
Where to Eat on Gozo
If you’re looking for a place to eat on Gozo, here are some places I can recommend:
Ta’ Mena Estate:
Ta’ Mena is a family-owned agricultural estate, named after the family matriarch, Mena (“mother Mena”). They grow and produce lots of traditional foods and wine on their sprawling estate. They also arrange agritourism food and wine tours, and sell all of their products in their local shop.
Il-Kartell is an waterfront seafood restaurant in the scenic resort town, of Marsalforn Bay. Gorgeous view and great food.
This tiny restaurant is right on the main plaza (pjazza) in the village of San Lawrenz. The have a good selection of traditional Maltese and Gozitan dishes, and great Italian food. The light was terrible when we were there so I didn’t bother taking a photo of the food. Instead, here’s a photo of some friends:
Pastizzi shops in Victoria
There are a bunch of small pastizzi shops (pastizzerias) in Gozo’s capital city, Victoria. Stop in to any one of them for hot pastizzi and other assorted savory pastry snacks. As noted above, they are a cheap and tasty snack.
My visit to Malta was organized by Iambassador and sponsored by the Malta Tourism Authority. All photos and perspectives are my own.
Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) says
Yum! Maltese cuisine looks so fresh and with lots of bright flavors! I LOVE pickled things, so I think their “antipasti” plates would be right up my alley. And I’m so intrigued by the local cheese—I love that it can be both creamy and soft as well as flaky… talk about versatile! Just another reason to visit Malta. 🙂
Cassie Kifer says
Oh my gosh, Steph! I’m obsessed with pickles (I have a whole Pinterest board dedicated to them, and other wierd/DIY “food experiments”: http://bit.ly/1r58Ihs) Did I mention that capers were the one pickled food I’ve never liked, but the ones there were so fresh and had such a great texture, I scooped them onto everything. Malta has me wanting to explore more of Mediterranean food destinations (when we were in Italy that trip, we were only in inland areas of Northern Italy, so there were no pickled things like this–next time I’d love to visit Naples and Sicily!)
The cheese was really delicious and it was fascinating how it all started the same way, in those soft rounds. I’m going to try to get a recipe for the vinegared and peppered version, and share that here.
Anyway, you would love Malta. It’s one of the few relatively off-the-beaten path places still remaining in Europe.
Wondering if this remotely an option for someone with Celiacs??
Cassie Kifer says
Hi Samantha, thanks for reaching out! Do you eat seafood? And rice? If so, I wouldn’t think you’ll have any problem. Seafood is a staple food on the islands (I didn’t write much about that because I personally am vegetarian and don’t eat seafood) but if you do, that will always be an option on the menu. Most restaurants also have Italian options on the menu so you can look for celiac friendly foods, like risotto and gnocchi. Maltese food is always served with a side of fresh and preserved (pickled) vegetables and homemade cheese. I’m not sure what some of the aged and seasoned cheeses are rolled in, so you would have to ask to be sure it’s something you can tolerate (if not, just stick with the fresh cheeses). The good thing is that English is the national language, so you can always inquire about the ingredients and ask for adaptations if necessary.
Are you planning a trip to Malta? Please let me know when and I’ll see if I can connect you with a gluten-free expert or Malta local who can talk to you more about safe food on the islands. I’m happy to help!
Hi Cassie, nice article!
Just wanted to pitch in a suggestion to any readers who’d like to try some Maltese food “on location”. There’s a small village in the south of Malta called Dingli and you can find a small restaurant that goes by the name of Dar il-Bniet. Their menu consists almost entirely of traditionally prepared Maltese dishes and snacks, with a lot of ingredients having been harvested from their own land. In fact, they’ve got a small shop where they sell some of their own produce too. Highly recommended!
I have an article with more suggestion on Maltese food here: http://www.maltauncovered.com/culture/maltese-food/ (Do edit out if you don’t allow links in comments – don’t want to spam you!)