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When I traveled to Malta last month, I had no idea what to expect in regards to food. What exactly is Maltese food? And of course I worried a little that vegetarian options in Malta might be limited. I worried for no reason though! Even though the national dish of Malta is rabbit, Stuffat tal-fenek, there are plenty of vegetarian options in the Maltese cuisine.
Thanks to the perfect location of the islands right in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta has always been on the trading route between Africa, the Middle East and Southern Europe, which consequently influenced the country’s cuisine. With people from different cultures passing through Malta on their travels from north to south or east to west, plus the various civilizations that occupied Malta over the centuries, Malta benefited from many more culinary influences than most other Mediterranean countries (especially considering how tiny the island nation is!), but at the same time, its food has an inerrably Mediterranean note. Fruits and vegetables typical for southern Europe, such as tomatoes, olives, broad beans, citrus fruits and figs, are part of most meals, and surprisingly delicious locally produced Maltese wines and cheeses top off each meal.
Let me take you on a tour of my favorite Maltese dishes and introduce you to some of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at in Malta and Gozo!
Maltese snacks are pretty addictive – especially the pastizzi. These little flaky dough parcels are filled either with ricotta cheese or with peas (the pea version is usually not vegetarian though). They reminded me a lot of Cornish pasties (a specialty from Cornwall that I love), clearly influenced by the British presence on the islands. You will find them all over the islands, from cafes and restaurants to dedicated pastizzerias. See below for my recommendations on where to try pastizzi.
The other typical savory snack is the ‘ħobż biż-żejt’, a sourdough loaf of bread dipped in olive oil and rubbed with ripe tomatoes, and then filled with tomatoes, capers, tuna, garlic and onion. We tried a slightly different version of this dish – basically the ingredients (plus Gozitan cheese) not mixed together, served with bread and olive oil:
As a starter or a side with meals, you usually also find some pastes and spreads, like hummus (the Middle Eastern influence), olive paste (Sicilian influence), bigilla (made from broad beans or tic beans – North African influence) or an anchovy paste, all served with delicious Maltese bread which is baked in wood-fired ovens – creating a dark, chewy crust and a soft, fluffy inside – or Maltese galletti, crackers that are normally homemade.
The best bread to try is Maltese ftira though, a flatbread with a hole in the middle and topped with amixture of tomatoes, eggplant, olives, capers (and anchovies for a non-vegetarian option). I (as a pizza lover) could’ve eaten this bread every day – for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
You’ll also often find Gbejniet as a starter, a white cheese made from unpasteurized goat’s or sheep’s milk, which is then dried in baskets and served drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with crushed black pepper and sea salt.
While most of the classic Maltese dishes aren’t vegetarian – for example Aljotta (fish soup), Lampuki Pie (fish pie) and a variety of rabbit (fenek) dishes that include soups, stews, sauces, pastas and pies, there are several meat-free options. Soppa tal-armla, also known as Maltese Widow’s Soup, was one of the best soups I had eaten in months! It is actually a simple soup, made with broad beans, peas, carrots and other vegetables that you might have, plus a Gbejniet (the above mentioned Maltese cheese) thrown in at the end. It doesn’t sound like much but trust me, it is to die for. In fact, I will try to make it at home with the help of this recipe.
Kapunata is the Maltese version of French ratatouille or Sicilian caponata – kind of a vegetable stew with zucchini, eggplant, peppers, tomato, garlic and onions which is easy to make and can be served with pasta or just bread.
Desserts & Sweet Treats
The Maltese love their sweets, and I found myself constantly surrounded by enticing bakeries and pastry shops. Having visited just before Easter, I was lucky enough to be able to try figolli, a traditional Easter biscuit filled with almond paste and decorated with icing sugar. They come in different shapes and colors, sometimes also chocolate covered, but some bakeries also had a small version (figollini).
A popular sweet year round are cannoli, brought to Malta from nearby Sicily (supposedly home to the tastiest cannoli in the world). These little tubes of crispy fried dough are filled with fresh ricotta cheese, and sometimes chocolate chips are added to the ricotta filling, but I preferred the ones we were served with fresh strawberries. To die for!
Luckily for me and my sweet tooth, I never had a hard time finding a treat with a good, strong cup of coffee. Even better: most of the pastries are filled with almonds or an almond paste, which I can’t get enough of.
Malta isn’t necessarily known as a wine-producing country, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to make wine! Maltese and Gozitan wines have won several awards in international competitions, and the grape varieties grown on the islands can easily keep up with Italian or French grapes. You’ll find Maltese Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Moscato, Carignan and Chenin Blanc. The wines I tried were all fantastic.
Malta’s national beer is Cisk, founded in 1928, and is traditionally a light lager. The brewery now also produces some stouts and pale ales, and even the Cisk Chill – a beer lemon mix similar to a German Radler or a British shandy.
Farsons, the Cisk brewery, also makes Kinnie, Malta’s popular non-alcoholic soft drink. Kinnie is basically a bittersweet herb lemonade of dark color (lighter than Coke though), and reminded me more of a Campari Soda than a soft drink. I have a feeling it mixes well with wodka.
Where to eat in Malta
I spent most of my time in Valletta, which is why most of my recommendations are for Malta’s capital.
Café Jubilee is one of the cutest restaurants I’ve seen anywhere in the world – a dimly lit, cozy restaurant filled with nostalgia! The walls are covered in old-fashioned pictures and paintings, and there is memorabilia from a long time ago everywhere, like antique kettles, bottles and strollers.
They are famous for their homemade ravioli which are also sold in supermarkets throughout the islands (look out for Nanna’s Raviolis), but also have crunchy pastizzi bursting with flavor, a big breakfast menu and in addition to traditional Maltese cuisine, you can get trendy dishes here; like a yummy-sounding Quinoa salad, or a sandwich with roasted beets, spinach and goats cheese – the perfect combination! I know I’ll have to go back there the next time I’m in Malta because I didn’t get around to trying their dessert ravioli (filled with a chocolate hazelnut cream… need I say more?!).
Address: 125 St Lucia Street, Valletta | (Their original branch is in Gozo, see below)
This is the oldest (and probably most famous) café in Malta, worth a visit just for its decadent interior, which includes elaborate mirrors, frescoes on the ceiling and a long wooden bar. An even bigger draw is their huge outdoor sitting area though, right on Victoria Square.
You can try qaghaq ta’ l-ghasel, honey rings, a typical Maltese sweet, here, the famous savory bread snack ħobż biż-żejt’ (see Maltese Snacks above), or pick up some figolli around Easter. They also have a huge selection of pastizzi, or you could go for a rabbit dish or the Maltese Platter which includes most of the snacks mentioned above, plus the tasty Maltese bread and galletti.
Address: 244 Republic Street, Valletta
As the name indicates, this place serves truly Badass Burgers, but also plenty of options for vegetarians, including a veggie burger, sandwiches and salads – my rucola spinach salad with buffalo mozzarella and roasted sunflower seeds was divine!
I also love that their dessert menu includes Banoffee Pie – my favorite British sweet treat! I was beyond excited to find a Banoffee Pie after so many years without and I had to order it. In fact, I had to go back the next day to also try their Banoffee milkshake which didn’t disappoint – not only because it came in a huge milk bottle!
Address: 46, Old Theatre Street
They also have a branch in St Julian’s.
Even though this is actually an Italian café with some of the most sophisticated and decadent cakes and tarts I’ve seen outside of France, this place also has some of the most inexpensive and mouthwatering vegetarian lunches in Valletta, like a chickpea & chestnut soup, a veggie burger, or a vegetarian pasta dish with eggplant. Plus, this being an Italian-owned café, you can rest assured that you’ll find some really good gelato here.
And: Dolci Peccati has fantastic coffee! Their main branch is in Sliema (268 Tower Road).
Address: St John Street (near the corner of Republic Street), Valletta
La Mere is a solid choice right on Merchant Street in the heart of Valletta, and they basically have something for every palate: Maltese, Indian, Arabian and Mediterranean cuisine. You can get anything from an authentic Indian curry to fresh fish or salads or a typical Maltese Platter with Bigilla, Maltese cheese and galletti. Tip: they have a large lunch menu that is great value for money.
Address: 174 Merchant Street, Valletta
The Grassy Hopper
The Grassy Hopper is a small but excellent vegetarian/vegan restaurant that is not much more than a hole in the wall in Valletta. They also have a food truck that you’ll find in Gzira. Here you find all the things that make a healthy eater’s heart beat fast – smoothies spiked with spirulina, wheatgrass, raw cacao, macca or bee pollen; salads with kale and buckwheat, and a number of vegetarian burgers that leave nothing to be desired. Due to the tiny size of their shopfront, they have a daily changing menu, which you can always find updated on Facebook regularly.
Address: 123 Old Theatre Street in Valletta or the food truck in Ix-Xatt ta Ta’Xbiex – Opposite Atlas Insurance (right on the waterfront).
Gululu was my absolute favorite restaurant in Malta – I’d consider staying in Sliema next time just so that I can eat at Gululu’s every day. And even if you’re not staying in Sliema or St Julian’s, Gululu is worth the trip there (super easy & quick from Valletta on the bus). This is the place to go if you want to try some really good Maltese food and wines, at surprisingly low prices.
The ftira here is out of this world, ranging from traditional toppings to more exotic, modern versions. If you’d like to try one of the famous Maltese rabbit dishes – this is the right place for you. You can also devour fresh fish, homemade pasta or a yummy salad. My rucola, honey-roasted pumpkin and goats cheese salad was simple, but heavenly nonetheless.
Address: 133 Triq Spinola, St Julian’s
I can’t write about food in Malta without mentioning at least one pizza place – and look at this pizza:
If you need your pizza fix on a regular basis (like I do!), Café Cuba can definitely satisfy your cravings. The large menu of pizzas fresh out of a wood-fired oven is almost overwhelming, but you’ll most likely find yourself coming back here for more. If you’re not into pizza, you’ll love the pastas, burgers and salads. The best time to eat here is during sunset – grab a table on the terrace and enjoy the views over the bay – but apparently the coffee here is superb, too, so if you’re strolling along the promenade, why not pause here for a coffee pit stop.
Address: Spinola Bay, St Julian’s. They have another branch in Triq Ix – Xatt, Sliema.
Ta’ Rikardu needs to be on your list of places to visit for the views alone! Head up to the rooftop terrace of the historic medieval building inside of Victoria’s Citadel and take in the stunning vistas, with a glass of wine and some traditional Gozitan cheese (Gbejniet) – both made on the family’s vineyard and farm. The food is not unforgettably good, but the views will stick with you forever.
Address: Triq il-Fosos, Victoria
This is the original Café Jubilee, well worth a visit for the cozy atmosphere and all the tasty dishes mentioned above (see Valletta).
Address: 8 Independence Square, Victoria
Have you been to Malta? If you have any recommendations for dishes and restaurants that shouldn’t be missed, feel free to share them in the comments below!
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