The locals love them, tourists love them, everybody loves them. Find out what makes Pastizzi - Malta's favourite street food - a Maltese icon.
You find out about pastizzi quite soon once your start getting to know Malta. But why has a savoury phyllo-pastry envelope won the hearts of a nation and all those who wander ashore? What's the story behind these golden nuggets?
What are pastizzi?
One bite into the crunchy pastry and there's an explosion of flakes in your mouth mixed with tasty stuffing. The diamond-shaped delights are traditionally filled with ricotta or mushy peas prepared to just the right consistency - not too solid, not too creamy. At 30-35c per pastizz (singular), they're cheap, delicious and work well to fill your stomach at any time of day.
Where can I get pastizzi?
The inviting smell, as well as a little crowd gathering on the pavement, usually indicates where, in a village, the pastizzeria (pastizzi shop) is, usually a hole-in-the-wall little shop with a counter at the entrance. Pastizzi are also sold in bars and cafes, on the Gozo ferry, at the Malta International Airport and everywhere - they are Malta's best-loved snack any time, anywhere. They are also available frozen and ready to bake at supermarkets.
How were pastizzi invented?
Little is known about when and how pastizzi were invented. It is known that even before 1200BC, much of the local diet consisted of bread, mainly eaten with vegetables and animal products such as cheese. Historians claim that the torta (pie) and the timpana (pasta bake wrapped in pastry) emerged in Maltese cuisine as the people began preparing diverse dishes yet needed additional pastry as a belly-filler when there was not enough to go around. It is quite likely that these little pastry wraps emerged from this habit, making them a handy bite-size for easy takeaway.
How are pastizzi made?
There is nothing like the smell of pastizzi, all neatly lined up on a huge metal tray, coming out of a hot oven. Pastizzi are cooked on location so that they are always fresh and hot. To achieve the typical flakiness, pastizzi pastry is stretched, folded with layers of fat in between and rolled, several times over, much like the Greek Phyllo. Yes, we know that's not healthy, but it's certainly delicious.
The pastizzi are then folded in a particular way depending on the filling, as a means of identification. Traditionally, cheese cakes (stuffed with ricotta) are folded down the middle, whereas pea cakes are folded down the side. A puff pastry version of pastizzi known as tax-xema will come in round and half-moon formats respectively.
What else can I find in a pastizzeria?
It all began with the traditional pastizzi, but that's not all you'll find at the local pastizzi shop. Qassatat are a bigger, pie-like variation made with short-crust pastry that come with ricotta, mushy peas or a spinach filling. Thick, square pizzas coated with cheese, tomatoes and olives are another item you would traditionally find in a pastizzeria. In recent years, due to popular demand and a desire for diversification, we have also seen the emergence of chicken pastizzi, sausage rolls, a variety of pies and closed pizzas, various pizza toppings, pasta bakes, Sicilian arancini and much more.
Which is the most famous pastizzeria in Malta?
Good old Crystal Palace near the Roman Villa in Rabat, popularly known as 'is-Serkin', is often voted the best pastizzi shop on the Maltese Islands. When this outlet was up for sale a few years ago, the news made it to the national newspapers and the entire nation went into panic, concerned about the future of this favourite haunt.
Thankfully, although the owners have changed and the place has been upgraded with a flashy new sign and outdoor tables and chairs, the pastizzi have remained the same. Previously, the place had an authentic Maltese vibe as old men filled the benches with tea in a glass on shared tables to exchange village gossip. The changes offer more comfort for families and tourists to indulge in the delights of is-Serkin, and the place still remains highly popular with locals and foreigners alike.
How are pastizzi an integral part of the Maltese day-to-day?
Pastizzi is that go-to street food in Malta when… well, any time really. Ran out of breakfast and late for work? In need of a mid-morning snack? Out on errands and no time for lunch? Stuck for what to bring to a friend’s get-together? Don’t feel like cooking dinner? Got the munchies after a night out? Any and all situations call for pastizzi. They are so ingrained in Maltese culture that immigrant communities abroad have taken pastizzi with them. You can find pastizzi wherever there are the Maltese people in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US.
How else are pastizzi ingrained in Maltese culture?
Pastizzi have also found their way into the Maltese language in idioms to illustrate certain situations. The Maltese idiom "jinbiegħu bħall-pastizzi" (selling like pastizzi) is equivalent to the English "selling like hot cakes" to describe anything which seems to have an inexhaustible demand; "Jinħarġu bħall-pastizzi" (produced like pastizzi) refers to anything produced at a fast rate, perhaps even too fast. Interestingly, pastizz is also used to call someone as an idiot. Finally, much to the mischievous delight of a humorous nation, it is commonly used as a euphemism for the female sexual organ due to its shape.
Now enough reading, go out and get some delicious pastizzi for yourself - after all, experiencing is believing!