Some of Malta’s best loved traditional dishes are taking on an entirely different form, inspiring innovative recreations at Michelin-rated restaurants across the islands. SARAH MUSCAT AZZOPARDI takes a close look at some newly reconstructed traditional dishes and compares them to their original counterparts, which you can still find at traditional eateries in Malta and Gozo.
For many of us, food has a curious quality that enables it to transport us to a different time. The mere mention or scent of a dish we enjoyed in our childhood can bring memories flooding back, and with them, the emotions tied to that time in our lives.
Among the Maltese, traditional dishes like kusksu (a soup made with broad beans and pasta beads) and braġjoli (beef olives) are ones we know well – old favourites that often found their place on the table at our parents’ and grandparents’ houses. Yet, despite these dishes harking back to the past, there is also a place for them in the future. In recent years, some of Malta’s top Michelin-recognised chefs have been drawing inspiration from traditional meals, reconstructing them and giving them a completely different form, texture and taste.
The humble qassata – a pastry pocket traditionally filled with ricotta cheese, peas, or an anchovy, tuna and spinach mixture – is a local favourite fast food, and is the inspiration behind a dish that’s currently available on the menu at Noni, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Valletta.
Founder and award-winning Chef Jonathan Brincat is the brains behind the dish, drawing inspiration from one of the key ingredients within it: spinach. “The inspiration started from celebrating the spinach mainly,” he explains, noting that the qassata was the first thing he associated with the ingredient.
“Our version of qassata is made with a flaky butter shortcrust pastry, with salt cod instead of tuna, as it has more flavour and retains moisture in the dish. It also features two elements of spinach – one is sautéed with confit leeks and preserved lemon, and the other is a set purée. Finally, three small slices of the finest Cantabrian anchovies are added for sweetness and umami. To set the whole dish, we use smoked haddock foam to give it a light and smokey flavour, finishing it off with N25 Oscietra caviar and spring leaves,” the chef describes.
Rather than improving on the original source of inspiration, Jonathan believes the dish acts as a celebration of it, to “elevate a humble Maltese staple and showcase it using the same ingredients but of better quality, with more refined techniques and precision.”
THE GOLDEN FORK’S KUSKSU
Visionary young chef Letizia Vella, who is Executive Chef at Michelin-recognised The Golden Fork in Attard, describes kusksu as one of the best showcases of Maltese culinary traditions. The soup dish is primarily made from seasonal broad beans, small pasta beads and fresh local cheeselets, and a refined, re-imagined version of it is currently available at her restaurant.
“This dish brings back memories close to home, given that it is a dish which my mother has been preparing for me since I was a kid. Hence I wanted to provide with the same experience but with a modern gastronomic twist,” she says, explaining that the base ingredients are similar to the classical recipe, including a cheeselet which is sourced from Gozo and broad beans grown in local fields.
“We decided to enhance the dish by creating a ‘fake’ yolk, utilising carrot purée and cured egg yolks. In this manner we manage to modify our ways without bypassing any core values of the dish, whilst at the same time demonstrating innovative cooking methods and techniques,” the chef continues.
Given the richness of traditional food in Malta, Letizia notes, the team strives to exhibit it to a wider audience whilst supporting locally sourced and produced ingredients. “Given that we change the menu at The Golden Fork on a seasonal basis, we have the opportunity to exhibit the great contribution that Maltese food can bring to the table. In the coming months, we shall be experimenting with other dishes and will definitely come up with more interesting twists to other Maltese dishes.”
THE FORK & CORK’S PASTIZZ
Pastizzi are among the most well-known local savoury snacks in Malta, and can be found across the islands – usually at small, hole-in-the-wall outlets known as pastizzeriji. One of the most celebrated, however, is Crystal Palace in Rabat, or as locals refer to it, Is-Serkin.
Rabat is also home to Michelin-recognised The Fork and Cork Restaurant, and it is this link, as well as the iconic nature of the local pastizz, that led Chef Patron Carl Zahra to re-imagine the delicious diamond-shaped filo pastries with a ricotta or pea filling on his menu.
“We all have memories of going to Serkin for a couple of pastizzi after a night out,” smiles Carl, referencing the traditional outlet’s popularity among local party-goers, who head there for a hearty snack before heading home for the night. “Being located so close by, creating a dish to celebrate that had been in my mind for some time, and we finally decided to include it in our spring menu, particularly with peas also being in season.”
The elevated dish includes different variations of peas, he notes, describing “crushed peas, pea water jelly and a pea gel, as well as pea shoots to adorn. Meanwhile, the ricotta is made into a crémeux.”
Describing pastizzi as “a stamp of our food culture”, Carl and his team have thus taken the light snack the Maltese islands are so well known for to a whole new level.
You can find Maltese braġjoli, also known as beef olives, on the menu at several traditional restaurants around the islands, but despite the name, you may be surprised to find that there are no olives in this dish. These slowly braised, stuffed bundles of beef got their name because when stuffed – with anything from ham and eggs to a sausage stuffing – they somewhat resemble the shape of an olive.
The braġjolu on the FUTURE menu at Michelin-starred Bahia restaurant in Attard is a little different. “When we decided to propose a tasting menu that represents local cuisine and the future, we thought of revisiting a series of classic Maltese dishes, and the braġjolu was one of them,” explains Executive Chef Tyrone Mizzi.
“We never thought about trying to recreate the traditional braġjolu. We simply wanted to remain loyal to the recognisable rolled effect and to three of the crucial ingredients of this dish, mainly beef, pork and egg. The mentality at Bahia gives us the opportunity to keep ‘playing’ with dishes to continuously improve the offering. In fact, we have updated the braġjolu three times so far, and we are working on yet another version,” he maintains.
Bahia’s braġjolu is made out of braised short ribs and a terrine of locally smoked ham hocks, confit egg yolk, smoked celeriac purée, daikon radish and a rich beef jus. “We have full respect towards the original version as it represents part of our culinary heritage, and hence our aim was never to try and improve the dish but to pay homage to it, celebrating it together with all the memories many of us have when we think about braġjoli,” Tyrone continues.
Another of the chef’s childhood favourites which also features on the menu is froġa tat-tarja (pasta omelette). “I have special memories of us eating this at home, and so besides the food itself, it is those special moments together that trigger a lot of emotion. This dish was also included in our FUTURE menu and just like the braġjolu, we are working to evolve it further,” he says.