Pardon my ignorance, but I didn’t know about their existence till last week. While searching for healthy snacking options (which is one of my perpetual pursuits), I discovered a packet of Fox nuts from Conscious Foods. I had absolutely no idea what they were or how they were to be eaten. I’ll admit the only reason I bought them was because I like what they are called. Fox nuts sounded fun enough.
I snipped open the packet and popped one into my mouth. To my horror they tasted like cardboard that had been forgotten in the corner of a damp room for an entire monsoon. I was about to dismiss them, when the usually clueless man in my life suggested we roast them. After about a minute in a hot pan, they completely changed texture and when from being cardboardy to crisp! They needed a little bit of spice & seasoning, and as luck would have it ‘Nani’s Secret’ – a dry masala mix made by Barnee was right by the stove. I sprinkled some onto the hot roasted nuts to create one of the most delicious snacks I have had in a long time. The nuts themselves are quite tasteless, but have a great crunchy texture. You can use pretty much any spice mix you like to flavour them – just some kala namak or rock salt, or garam masala maybe. I’m sure they’d be lovely even with an oil based tadka with curry leaves, chilli powder & turmeric.
I’m quite thrilled I discovered these! They are perfect to nibble on when watching a movie or as an accompaniment to evening chai. If any of you know other ways of cooking fox nuts (also called makhana or lotus seeds or gorgon nut), I’d love to know.
A dear friend, who happens to be mallu and takes his food very seriously, introduced me to some of his favourite Malabari food joints – Madina Hotel and Sneha Restaurant, both in Mahim opposite Paradise Cinema. I visited Madina first, and was so taken up its authenticity and honesty, that I began an exploration of Malabari food in Mumbai and found a whole lot of very interesting places just like it. I cannot believe these eateries have been hiding from me in plain view all these years! Following this little research, I wrote a piece for Mumbai Mag, which lists some of the city’s oldest and finest Kerala food joints.
Yesterday, I had some work in Bandra, which was conveniently followed by a quick lunch at Sneha Restaurant. Our meal was quite simple – sinful, flaky parotas, with spicy beef fry and fiery chicken sukha. At the end of the meal, the man serving us asked whether we’d like dessert. I was quite surprised that they even made sweets, and asked him what he had. He mumbled something inaudible and made a triangle shape with his fingers. I picked up a few words “banana leaf”, “steamed” and “acha hai!“. I couldn’t tell whether he didn’t speak Hindi, or was shy because he was speaking to a ‘ladis person’ or was trying to impress us with English words. Whatever he said convinced me I wanted that dessert even though I was quite full. So we asked him to pack one.
All the way home I held a warm package in my hand imagining what lay within. (Yes, I’m that dramatic). In the half an hour it took us to reach, my curiosity had peaked and a little space in my tummy seemed to have become available! Inside the triangular banana leaf parcel was a rice flour pancake, which had been stuffed with sweetened fresh coconut and little chunks of banana. The flavour of the banana leaf had infused into the slightly gelatinous rice flour. The coconut and banana stuffing was warm, juicy and minimally sweetened. With a little help from Google I found out that this simple, delicious preparation is called Ela Ada – absolutely loved every bite!
An army of strawberry cupcakes
For a couple of weeks now I’ve been hearing locals discuss the annual strawberry festival held at Mgarr, and seen plenty of colourful posters all over Malta advertising it. This celebration of strawberries is in its 8th year now, and is a much awaited affair. It’s held in the shadow of a beautiful church, in the central pjazza of Mgarr. The atmosphere is like that of a fair – live musicians entertain the crowd, children put up little skits and dance performances, there’s a cupcake competition, a face painting stall for kids and lots more. Of course, the main reason people head over is to have their fill of strawberry flavored desserts and snacks – pancakes, waffles, muffins, cookies, cupcakes, cheesecakes, cannoli, zeppoli, pies, tarts, smoothies, milkshakes, icecreams, sorbets, jams, juices, sundaes and more. They even make strawberry ravioli, but as adventurous as I am with food, I just couldn’t get myself to try some. I spent a fun couple of hours in the crowd, ate a giant cupcake, had a cup of sorbet, bought some strawberry wine, chatted with a bunch of old ladies selling vintage crockery, and then made my way home. Although I love the speckled fruit, after seeing children dressed as strawberries and smelling strawberry scented soap bars, I’ve had my fill for a bit and won’t be biting into a strawberry any time soon!
Stuffed in cannoli
Caught in the act
I wouldn’t be doing justice to Maltese cuisine if I didn’t dedicate a post to Maltese bread. This delicious sour dough bread has a very hard brittle crust that’s usually browned in parts. The brown bits have a smokey, slightly burnt flavour. The inside is light, airy and melts in your mouth. It’s usually served on the side with roast meats, soups and stews, so you can use it to soak up all the pan juices and gravy. Another way to enjoy this bread is to just top it with some conserva (tomato paste), olive oil, olives, onions, chopped herbs, tuna, ham and other typically Mediterranean condiments. However you choose to consume this delicious Maltese staple, you won’t be able to stop! Slices of bread will just disappear down your throat, in soft melting mouthfuls, till you stand on the weighing scale and find yourself several pounds heavier. As delicious as it is, be warned, (that like all good things in the world), this bread can really fatten you up! My friend Ingrid describes it as ‘the fault of the Maltese people’. I seriously don’t blame them.
Last week, I made friends with a lovely couple – Daniela & Matthew. They’re both well-traveled, great conversationalists and certified scuba divers! Naturally, we had much to talk about and I learnt lots from them about life in Malta. Had a great time and forged a new friendship. The first time we met, they introduced me to Fontanella, a popular coffee shop in Mdina which overlooks a beautiful green valley and serves some pretty decadent desserts. I’ve wandered to Fontanella a couple of time after to indulge my sweet tooth.
We met again today, and went for lunch to a place called Il-Barri, which translates to ‘The Bull’. It’s a laid back restaurant at Mgarr, popular among locals who come here for traditional Maltese dishes. The house specialty is fentaka or stewed rabbit, which happens to be the national dish. I was able to sample quite a few dishes, done the old-school slow cooked way, and served in unimaginably large portions. Feast your eyes!
A platter of Maltese bread topped with vegetables, water biscuits and a delicious dip called bigilla made with broad beans
Quail cooked with roasted vegetables
Fenkata – Rabbit stew with bits of bacon, Maltese sausage, potatoes and peas
Rabbit cooked in wine
This trick of following old ladies into shops always works! This time I discovered Żebbuġ Mimli, when walking down the streets of Senglea. Olives are grown locally and liberally used in Maltese cuisine. They are an integral part of any cheese platter and served as bar nibbles. Żebbuġ Mimli or tuna stuffed olives are a local favourite. The plump juicy olives are pitted and stuffed with a paste made with tuna, parsley, chilli and other herbs, then tossed in olive oil. They make for a lovely mouthful that’s salty, creamy, fishy and just a little spicy. I ate this entire bunch in one go, while sitting by the waterfront and watching boats go by!
Peppered Gozo cheese
The Maltese really love cheese, and use it in nearly every snack and dessert. They even make a goat’s cheese soup! So far I’ve sampled local cheesecakes, ricotta stuffed qassatat, cheese pastizzzi, cannoli, zeppoli and other cheesy delights. To be honest, I don’t have the appetite for so much cheese, I eat it more like an accompaniment or a garnish, unlike the Maltese for whom it is almost a staple like wheat, meat or vegetables.
Just yesterday I discovered a local specialty – Gozo cheese. As the name suggests this cheese was traditionally made by shepherds of Gozo, Malta’s neighboring Island, which is the quieter and less populated of the two. This local cheese is made with goat’s milk and compressed into round flattened nuggets. I bought a peppered variety. It’s salty, creamy, dense and delicious – the spicy crushed pepper perfectly complements it! What’s not to love?