by Books Critic
In a conversation I had with a Maltese Bolt driver, I wondered aloud about which part of Malta best represents life as it was decades ago. “If you would like to see traditional and authentic Maltese life,” he replied stoically, “visit the Maltese in Australia. They have clung on while we deserted our culture.” As he dropped me on the Sliema front, I could see so many international eateries that I wondered how long it would be before our cuisine is swept away in this sea of change.
It is a relief to see Maltese cookbooks penned by Maltese Australians and emigrants. They are an affirmation from afar of something great that is worth preserving. Maltese Australiansharbour a silent message for us as they cling on to their identity and love for their ancestors’ heritage. Their passion for Maltese cuisine puts us to shame as we surrender fresh food from the market to Wolt’s fast food. It is within this setting that I express a big heartfelt appreciation to Adelaide-raised Simon Bajada for his cookbook entitled “Malta: Mediterranean Recipes from the Islands,” released on 18 July 2023. His is a captivating and visually striking cookbook full of his decades-old Maltese photographs that instantly remind us that we have surrendered our beautiful architecture. The book has enticing recipes embedded in historical insights that add depth and context. I bought a Kindle version of the book for under ten Euros from the Amazon website.
Bajada divides the recipes into sections. His first section is “Grazing,” dedicated to the traditional platter of preserved foods such as pickled vegetables, white bean salad, tuna tomato dip, sausage, cheeses, and anchovy-stuffed olives, “almost always served with ħobż” (i.e., breads).
Breads make up the second section. “Nowhere else in the world have I bitten into a darkish-coloured loaf with a crust that manages to be so light,” he observes. He reminds us of the Bread Riots of 1919. We are defined by our bread, including high-gluten ftira, galletti (i.e., water crackers), ftira (i.e., Gozo’s pizza bread), and qagħaq tal-ħmira (i.e., yeast rings).
In the Pasta section he notes how spaghetti with tomato sauce is a mainstay of the Maltese diet [where] celebratory meals typically start with pasta.” He attributes this to our proximity to Italy. I found his baked pasta shells with ricotta intriguing, stuffing the pasta shells with ricotta prior to boiling them, coating the exposed edges with semolina to help the shells develop crusty edges in the oven where tomato sauce may be replaced by béchamel. His ravioli stuffed with ground pork are an interesting twist on the more familiar ricotta-filled type.
His stuffed squid recipe, in the Seafood section, adorns the book cover. His lampuki pie is a timely arrival as the lampuki season is about to start. He prefers his whitebait pulpetti without onion and garlic, unafraid to express his personal preference. I would like to try his octopus salad, and the garlic fish soup. His pulpetti tat-tonn (i.e., tuna fishcakes) can also be made with corned beef instead.
In the Meats section, he observes how the Maltese increasingly prefer their pork sausages to be cooked and less salty than they used to be. He fears that horse meat could be on the road to extinction but snails in herb and tomato broth will likely live on. Braġioli (i.e., beef olives) grace his table as well.
His admiration for roadside stalls is driven by his love for vegetables. Wherever possible, he prefers local ingredients in their original form. In the Vegetables section, Kapunata Shakshouka, Widow’s Soup, Stuffed Marrows, and Stuffed Artichokes contribute to a healthy diet.
Sweets and Drinks make up the last section of the book. There are several recipes, ranging from the Chestnut and Coca Drink to the decadent Prinjolata cake. This section has what must be the easiest recipe in the book, the Prickly Pear Liqueur where all it takes is four ingredients: vodka, water, sugar, and of course, prickly pears.
Bajada places a strong emphasis on using ingredients in their purest form some of which may require some effort to source in countries outside Malta. The inclusion of instructions for making sheep’s milk cheeselets, and salt-curing tuna showcases the dedication to preserving age-old techniques.
The book has a foreward by Pippa Mattei, a Maltese cook and author, who sounds the alert about the “frenetic lifestyles and the proliferation of supermarket meals,” which threaten the traditional cuisine. She hopes that foreign readers journey to Malta to enjoy all that the country offers. This was days before the heatwave and the disastrous collapse of the electricity system in several Maltese towns and villages. Julia Busuttil Nishimura, an Australian cook and author, penned a foreward too. In it she reminisced about her Maltese ancestors and their joys of cooking. She does something that should hold a lesson for all of us in Malta. She writes: “Cooking Maltese food with my own children is now the best way to bring my treasured culture into our home… We… celebrate Maltese Independence Day with a long lunch and often spend Saturdays making ravjul.” Her comments bring tears to my eyes, as so many young ones would rather eat burgers and fries from MacDonalds. Perhaps what’s at stake is something much bigger, the future of Maltese culture where our children’s food preference is the canary in the cage.