Traditional Vegetarian Food in Malta
The archipelago of Malta is strangely familiar, yet also wonderfully exotic. Expect to be greeted with a bongu and a sense of hospitality that can only be found in the Mediterranean. Experience the eclectic mixture of seemingly opposite cultures (Italian, Arabic and English mainly) that have forged modern day Malta. The whirlwind history and remote geography of the island have influenced the cuisine greatly, time to delve deeper into the vegetarian food in Malta.
Outside influences that shaped
the traditional Maltese food
Before diving headfirst into the extensive culinary scene of Malta, it is worth taking a step back and looking at the various different cultures that influenced the traditional Maltese food. The main streams of influence can be traced back to the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, the Knights of Saint John and the British.
We know that once the Knights of St John set foot on the island, the traditional Maltese food underwent a significant shift. The Knights hailed from different countries (mainly France, Italy and Spain): They were wealthy, influential and above all had a healthy appetite. Along with their sense of duty they bought pasta, anchovies, meat and vegetables soups and the cooking technique of stewing meat in wine.
In the 17th century Malta was part of a handful of the few places in Europe where knights and slaves rubbed elbows at one of the many registered coffee shops (drinking coffee was reserved for the elite elsewhere).
Once the British took hold of Malta, the Maltese cuisine incorporated some decidedly British elements: think tea with milk, English mustard and even Worcestershire sauce.
Over the centuries the various different cultural influences where mixed together and started bouncing ideas off each other creating innovative recipes and delicacies that are considered the traditional food from Malta, recipes handed down for generations. Do not be surprised to find dishes that seem familiar at first – pasta with sardines from Sicily, fish stew from France, date biscuits from Northern Africa – but portray a very different flavour once you bite into them due to use of local herbs and spices and even cooking techniques.
While it is true that most of the traditional dishes you will find are meat-based: Imqarrun il-forn (Macaroni in the oven with minced meat); Imqarrun il-forn (Baked rice with minced meat) and ofcourse Stuffat tal-Fenek (Rabbit stew), there is plenty of vegetarian food in Malta too! The vegetarian alternatives are decidedly Mediterranean, relying on fresh produce cooked with a generous amount of olive oil or wine – bet that peaked your interest.
Vegetarian Food in Malta you need to try:
8 dishes to add to your list!
The format of the menu in a traditional restaurant in Malta
When entering a restaurant in Malta chances are high you will be presented with an Italian style menu i.e. antipasti, primi (starter), secondi (main) and desert. A perfect antipasto is traditional Maltese bread with dips, as a starter expect to find soups, risotto or pasta dishes. Generally the mains are comprised of meat/fish, but there are plenty of vegetarian alternatives…one does not go hungry in Malta (this stands true for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians).
Different from the average Italian menu though is the size of the portions. In a very Anglo-Saxon manner, portions are extremely generous. It is not uncommon the be very full after a starter! Food waste can be avoided by informing the waiter that you would like your starters to be on the slightly smaller side.
Vegetarian food in Malta to eat as a starter and a main
The single most important vegetarian food in Malta to try is the Maltese bread. What? A simple loaf of bread? Talk to any local about their food and Maltese bread is bound to come up “you simply have to try it, it is just so good” they will gush, their eyes lighting up like a kid on Christmas morning.
Traditional Maltese bread is a crunchy sourdough bread which dates back to the Phoenician times. Grain was available in ample amounts on the island and bread became a staple in the Maltese diet and continues to be so to this day.
Try some ħobż biż-żejt u t-tadam (slice of bread rubbed with fresh tomato paste and olive oil) as a starter. Some restaurants offer this dish with capers, olives and/or tuna as a garnish.
Soppa tal-armla (widow’s soup)
This traditional Maltese soup has a bit of a funny name. It goes back to the Medieval Ages, where penniless widowed women received vegetables and other leftover products to keep starvation at bay. Widows soup is an excellent example of nourishing vegetarian food in Malta: Plenty of seasonal vegetables, broad beans, eggs, potatoes and sometimes garnished with ġbejna (a chunk of sheep’s cheese).
The soup is usually eaten with a slice of – you guessed it – Maltese bread!
In all honesty Pastizzi can be eaten as a starter, main, dessert, snack and pretty much any other occasion you can think of. You get the picture; this my friend is the holy grail of traditional vegetarian food in Malta. The Pastizzi are so important in Malta that they have even made their way into the Maltese language with the saying jinbieghu bħal pastizzi meaning selling as fast as pastizzi.
It is not hard to see why the Maltese love them. Pastizzi are a veritable rollercoaster ride for your mouth: diamond shaped, crunchy flaky – Arab style – pastry with a soft & lukewarm filling. Available in two flavours: filled with mushy peas and spices (pastizzi tal-pizelli) or with fresh ricotta (pastizzi tal-irkotta). Expect to pay between € 0,35 and € 0,40 apiece.
While Pastizzi can be found pretty much anywhere, the Crystal Palace in Rabat is widely regarded as the spot to try one. Here you get the full experience; from older gentleman chilling at the bar to youngsters stopping for a quick snack. The terrace offers a prime location to indulge in the age-old science of people watching. Depending on the time of day you might want to order a Kinnie (Maltese spice lemonade) or a Cisk beer to go with your Pastizzi.
Il Ftira Ghawdxija is a traditional Maltese dish from Gozo. At first glance, you might think it a pizza. While it is true that the shape is the same, that is where the similarities stop. The dough is made up of sourdough bread, baked to perfection in a firewood oven. Traditionally the Gozo Ftira is topped with potatoes, gbejna (sheep’s cheese), nowadays the amount of toppings available is never-ending so you can customize it to your taste and make it suitable for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
Vegetarian food in Malta to eat as a starter and a main
Not technically a desert, but more of an ingredient in many deserts and popular as a spread for breakfast. Do not pass up the opportunity to try the Maltese honey when visiting Malta. The island has been producing honey for over a millennium! This liquid gold, as it was known in the 8th century BC, was extremely prized and even produced for export during Phoenician times. The Maltese honeybee is unique to the island and produces many varieties of different honey. The flavour of the honey depends on the season, popular flavours include wild thyme, citrus, carbob and even eucalyptus.
A crispy (fried) pastry filled with date paste and topped off with some delicious Maltese honey. This traditional Maltese sweet is a favourite among locals and can be found in any bakery and food carts around the city. As you might have guessed, Imqaret are of Arabic origin and similar sweets can be found under different names in present day Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Perhaps one of the most scrumptious slices of vegetarian food in Malta to be tried!
The Knights of St. John also left their mark on Maltese desserts in the form of Kwarezimal, traditionally to be eaten during Lent. The name of this biscuit refers to the 40 days of Lent fasting during which animal products were not allowed to be consumed. Sub sequentially the recipe does not contain any eggs or butter! This recipe of this traditional (vegetarian-friendly) Maltese chewy biscuit is made with a delectable mixture of spices and ground almonds.
Vegetarian food in Malta is anything but boring! The proof of that can be found in the delicious and crispy form of the Kannoli. This sweet delicacy is made of fried dough, shaped like a little tube and filled with beautifully fresh ricotta. Kannoli much like Pastizzi can be eaten at any time of the day and are widely available in ever pastry shop. Kannoli originally herald from neighbouring Sicily which is known for its fingerlicking streetfood! The sweet was first introduced on the island of Sicily in the 9th century AD.
While Malta is very close to Sicily and the laid-back culture, espresso & cannolo for breakfast-vibe might trick your mind into thinking the islands are similar…the Maltese menu will set you straight! Black tea with milk is a perfect alternative to espresso, and pies in all shapes and sizes are planted firmly next to pasta dishes.
The vegetarian food in Malta is a true testimony to the trials and tribulations that the island underwent. It shows you how throwing different cultures into one mixing pot can sometimes lead to a very unexpected – yet oh-so delicious – outcome.
Things to know before visiting Malta
- Best time to visit Malta: April, May and June are considered the best months as there is plenty of sun during the day and a nice fresh breeze at night
- Language spoken in Malta: Both Maltese and English are widely spoken across the island.
- Currency: Euro
- Safety: Malta is a very safe island to visit, as with any tourist destination there are pickpockets around so be mindful of your valuables. In addition the island is known to be very progressive when it comes to LGBT legislation, which makes is very safe to travel within Malta for LGBT couples.
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