The first thing I should say about cooking in Malta is that there are around 600 reasons not to cook within walking distance. Some of our favorites are:
- Guzé — OK, I love Pappardelle with wild boar sauce. I could eat this once a week.
- Pepperoncino — The Rosettes (little bowls of pappardelle and proscuitto cooked in cream sauce) are to die for. Plus a totally small town friendly vibe that you just can’t beat.
- Piccolo Padre -- Eat pizza right out over the water. Diavola yum!
- Wigi’s Kitchen — You can pick your fish or your steak right at the table. The window seats have an awesome view of Balluta bay.
- Kebabji. -- The students introduced us to this one. I think of it as "the chipotle of Sliema." My favorite is Chicken-shish with Tabbouleh, Hummus, Couscous, Harissa, and Sesame sauce. Actually its the only thing on the menu I've ever ordered, but why mess up a good thing.
I’m going to divide the rest of this post into three parts, that roughly describe the three stages of cooking I have gone through here. I call them:
- Subsistence cooking
- Getting over it, and getting on with it
- Grilling season arrives
So, I admit when we first got here, I went through a bit of culture shock. As I’ve mentioned before, it was colder inside our flat than it was outside, and it was rainy, and dreary most of the time. Our kitchen was, and still is, tiny and isolated from the rest of the flat. The cutlery was dull, and the pots and pans old and dented. We must have set aside 50 knives and a dozen pots and pans from the three flats to be disposed of.
We made our first trip to a grocery store called Lidl, a german chain. All of the ingredients were labelled in anything other than language. There was little produce or fresh meat, and it was nowhere near our flat. Next door to us is a small corner market, at the cash register is a young boy who ought to be in school but never is. They have produce outside, but no fresh meat, and a totally random selection of dry goods. There is a large supermarket about 1km away, and it has a lot of things. Going to the Park Towers supermarket for the first time was like an adventure. Taco shells! A butcher, a cheese counter with Parmeggiano Reggiano, hot sauce, spices, asian ingredients.
The first meal we cooked in the flat was a grilled cheese and ham sandwich. Not regular ham but delicious prosciutto ham, and tomato soup. Sound familiar? I’ll bet that is the first thing that many people learn to cook. I’ll bet it was two weeks before we cooked an evening meal in the flat. In part because going out for dinner meant that we had some place warm and heated where we could go for a few hours before coming home and huddling under our covers. The first true good meal I cooked was this pesto with chicken. We quickly discovered that we don't care too much for pesto in a jar even this close to Italy. We also learned that vegetables and fruits are much more seasonal here in Malta than in America. So we had to wait a few weeks before basil came into season to make a good home made pesto.
Getting over it, Getting on with it
Eventually, the temperature warmed up and we got more comfortable with our surroundings and we reached the point where we could not stand to eat out anymore and so we started cooking in the flat more. One of my goals was to learn at least one new recipe while we were in Malta. I figured it would be so me kind of seafood, but it turns out the Maltese don't really eat that much seafood despite living on an island. After our trip to Rome I realized that what I really wanted to cook was spaghetti carbonara. For some reason I have missed out on this delicious yet simple dish my entire life. This is one of those simple yet delicious Italian dishes. Eggs, wine, noodles, cheese, and good cured ham or bacon. I have been making steady progress on mastering this dish, but I still have a ways to go before it will live up to that first night in Rome.
The second thing that made a turnaround in our cooking was learning to shop. Now there are four places that are worth highlighting.
- O'Ryan's on the corner
- The college street mini market (the green market)
- park towers supermarket
- Meats and Eats on Dingli
- all the vegetable trucks
Let's dispatch with Park Towers first. Big, indifferent to rude staff, distant. Shopped there a couple of times and decided not to go back. Jane has been back a couple of times to stock up on cleaning and bathroom supplies, but we don't shop there anymore for groceries.
The corner store is great for water, limoncello, Pringles, and the occasional need for baguette and salami. It's about double the size of my living room, but packs in all of the essentials including frozen meats. The owner and his family run it together. Nine times out of ten when you go in there you would think that the mother is on the verge of killing the father or the son. Or it might just be that most Arabic conversations still sound like arguments to my western ears. Much of the time the cash register is "manned" by a boy who clearly should be in school but is not. I suppose he will inherit the store and so is learning the trade and the family does not feel the need to send him to school.
The green market is much larger than the corner store, and has great fresh baked bread every day. They have a reasonable selection of fruits and vegetables out front, along with canned goods and other essentials. Most of the time the cash register is manned by an old man who has never once rung up an entire order correctly, but he is charming and friendly every time we go to the store.
Meats and Eats is probably the single best thing that happened to my cooking during our stay in Malta. The store is bright and clean and staffed by a bunch of friendly Italians. The meat counter is a joy to visit almost every day. It's the kind of meat counter wher they have several big hunks of ribeye, originating from around the world, and they Will cut you off a hunk of whatever thickness you like. They also have marinated pork and chicken and fresh minced beef and pork. The rest of the store has great gourmet ingredients as well as some nice convince items like prepared curry sauce. The cheese counter has huge chunks of parmigiana reggiano at a ridiculously low price. Next to the checkout counter is a wine selection that is just about as good as anything you can find in Malta.
I knew that I was going to have a great time shopping at Meats and Eats the morning I decided to give carbonara a try. I went to the meat counter to get some bacon and had the following conversation:
Clint: Sorry sir, we only have streaky bacon today.
Me: Uhhhhm streaky bacon? Ahh, the stuff that just looks like regular bacon to my eye. What's the difference? Clint: Very thin, not the good cured pork belly.
Me: Oh, well I'm just experimenting with carbonara sauce so I think the streaky bacon will work.
Clint: Oh no sir, you should not do that. If you are doing carbonara you need the good bacon or one of the packages of pancetta in the case over there.
Oh yes, agreed the lady standing next to me at the counter. Now I am left wondering how I will find this wonderful chunky pancetta back home.
Another thing I'm excited about continuing back home is fried spring rolls! Jane and I had lessons on making these in Vietnam, and were excited to try our hand on our own. When I discovered an Asian market on my walk to school I knew this would become a reality in Malta. Shopping in the Asian market is like Christmas, I see all of these cool exotic ingredients and I want to get them and try them out. Fresh lemon grass, six different kinds of fish sauce, Hoisin, Sirachi, you name it. Now the key to good spring rolls in my opinion starts with the wrapper, and I definitely like the frozen wrappers much better than the dried. They are easier to work with and I like the texture of the end product better. With a little more practice I'll be ready to challenge my friend Nancy to a Spring Roll Throwdown!
A Sunday morning expedition to the Marsaxlokk (Mar-sa-shlock) fish market provided an opportunity to learn how to fillet and cook fresh caught sea bass. There are many other types of fish available at the market as well, but Jane and I had both watched a you-tube video on filleting sea bass, so that was the direction we went. The market also has huge king prawns, but taking the head and legs off the prawns is a lot of work for my lunch. One thing that amazed me about the fish market was that it was not the least bit fishy smelling. In fact other than the fish market in the middle of Gzira I have yet to walk along the sea here in Malta and think, oh fishy, or ocean. I guess it goes with the crystal clear water.
One thing that we have really had to work on is finding variety in our diet. Back home we enjoy the cuisine of many different countries all in the same week. Tex-Mex one night, grilling the next, indian or Thai curry after that, italian, vietnamese, pot roast in the crock pot (an American Tagine), you name it, we like our variety. Making tacos is definitely a comfort food that we miss. The ingredients are just about impossible to find. Sour Cream and creme fresh are not the same, The salsa here on the isaland is just not up to par. Finding taco shells is possible at the Park Towers supermarket, but you have to go there to buy them. Then there is the beef, or what the British and Maltese call mince I suppose that if you look at it objectively mince is no worse of a word than ground but having grown up with ground beef, minced beef sounds a little disgusting to my ears.
The other odd thing is the lack of soups. You simply cannot buy cream of mushroom anywhere! So we have gone six months without one of the staple comfort dishes of my entire life, namely beef stroganhoff. The availability of wonderful Parmiagianno Reggiano makes risotto a good comfort fill in, and here we run into the lack of chicken stock. I suppose I could, and should, make my own stock but that takes advanced planning. I'm used to just grabbing a carton of stock from the coop to make my risotto. Here it appears that boiled water with bullion cubes, or a little container of gelatinous chicken stock substance that you disolve in water takes the place of a good stock. It does the trick, especially with a little extra Reggiano.
And finally a word about wine. Maltese wine is surprisingly good, and incredibly cheap. While many of the students pride themselves on keeping it under 3 euros a bottle, I have found many good wines for under ten. My favorites are:
- ISIS, a rather unfortunate name for a wine in this day and age, but it really is my favorite
- Maltese Falcon
- Marsamena -- a delicious chardonnay from Gozo
On the subject of wine I would be totally remiss if I did not mention our local wine shop. Owned and run by a young man from the south of France, Vini Culture is a fun place to stop in on my way home from school, or to just run around the corner and grab a bottle for happy hour. The young guy who runs the store is extremely friendly and pleasant. I never stop in there without having an enjoyable conversation about wine and France and all the new things he has on order for us to try. Its hard to understand how he makes a living in a specialty shop like that in the middle of Sliema but I'm happy I got to know him and shop there.
And suddenly grilling season was upon us. The roof was a much sunnier and less windy place. The sun was starting to stay out until a reasonable cooking hour. Meats and Eats has a wonderful pork steak marinated in mediterranean spices, and we can grill that and serve it with some roasted new potatoes from my Sicilian vegetable man. Some fresh baked bread, and some spinach salad with strawberries and vinaigrette dressing.
The Sicilian vegetable guy, I have no idea what his name is, is another great story. Since meats and eats does not sell vegetables, I just walk another half block to this guys fresh vegetable truck. I know he thinks I'm kind of odd because I usually come in and buy one hot pepper, six small potatoes, or one head of garlic, depending on what I need for the evening meal. Its not usually much, and it almost always under one euro. One day I was buying a pepper and an onion for a total of 40 cents, I had forgotten to put change in my pocket before I left the flat. As I struggled to find some coins and then started to pull out my wallet for a bill he said "listen, don't worry, you can pay me tomorrow."
Grilling season brought with it much more than an opportunity to stand on the roof and cook meat with a drink in my hand. It brought a huge transformation in the weather, and consequently my enjoyment of our time in Malta. No longer did I get out of bed in the morning and wrap myself in multiple layers of clothing, no longer were we huddled in the front room, door closed, heater running in order to feel comfortable.
I miss my Hasty Bake, and its ability to cook and smoke meat slowly, but this little gas powered grill has brought a lot of enjoyment. Meats and Eats sells Kobe beef patties, as well as Ribeye steak from five different countries, including Australia and Ireland. It has been fun to try the variety. They have chicken marinated in three or four different marinades an so that provides us with a great variety of things to try.
It is certainly true that you can learn a lot about a culture by its food. Malta is definitely no different. The Italian influence is obvious in the pizza and pasta restaurants that are everywhere. Their national dish of Pastizzi is not my favorite, but has certainly become a cheap lunchtime staple for many of the students. The traditional Maltese foods include rabbit, which is also quite good -- especially the rabbit pie at Guze -- and some other stuffed meat dishes. There are turkish kebab and pizza places everywhere. We think its an odd combination, and we wonder about all the kebab joints. I think it must have to do with the influence of the Ottoman empire on the island long ago, but I may be completely wrong. In general, it is a diet high in carbohydrates, which works for me, but drives Jane crazy. Jane and I had one of those funny conversations back in January, where the question was if you had to give up variety, and live with one cuisine, which would it be? Both of us chose Itialian or Vietnamese as our top two. Then I was leaning toward Italian, but now I am looking forward to more of the fresh healthy variety offered by the Vietnamese.