Taking time to experience local food in Malta will add majorly to the enjoyment of your trip. Traditional Maltese food draws influences from across the Mediterranean, but the national cuisine has its own distinct style and flavours. There is a great variety to discover, whether it’s a hearty soup or stew, a street food snack, or a delicious sweet treat. In this article we take a quick look at the history of Maltese food and pick the best traditional dishes (and where you can try them) to help you decide what to eat in Malta.
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Food in Malta: a quick history
Every time we visit Malta, we always look forward to trying a little bit more of the national cuisine. It’s a huge part of experiencing the culture and day-to-day life of this beautiful island nation.
Food in Malta is diverse, delicious, and heavily influenced by the surrounding Mediterranean region. There are all sorts of dishes and delicacies to try, as we will explore below, but every restaurant has its own take on the traditional recipes, and so there is always something new to taste.
Maltese food traditions are closely tied to the country’s heritage as a small archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Its strategic location means that Malta has been at the fulcrum of trade routes and in the crossfire of conflicts throughout its history. Over thousands of years, the country has been settled or occupied by various civilisations from Southern Europe or Northern Africa, and more recently the United Kingdom.
Many of the foods you may associate with the Mediterranean – breads, olives, meats, cheeses, fish – are also a cornerstone of Maltese food. But they are prepared, presented and applied in different ways.
Fresh produce in Malta
The variety of fresh foods grown in Malta is quite incredible for a relatively small country. Much of the rural countryside is cultivated farmland that produces a huge range of fruit, vegetables and grain.
Malta is particularly renowned for its olive production, and as a result, olive varieties and olive oils are highly prevalent in the national cuisine.
It’s also no surprise that fish is a predominant feature of the island nation’s cuisine. Seafood caught freshly from the surrounding Mediterranean waters is as good as you will try anywhere in the world. If you visit Marsaxlokk Open Market on the south side of the main island, you can see a flurry of local activity at daybreak as local fisherman hawk their catches. Arrive early to pick up the best quality produce!
The ocean provides another important ingredient in Maltese cuisine: salt. The salt pans on Malta’s second island, Gozo, produce some of the finest salt in the Mediterranean.
What to eat in Malta often depends on seasonality. For example, lampuki fish is caught in abundance from August through to the end of the year, and so this is a great time to try a fresh lampuki pie.
In winter, hearty soups of pumpkin and root vegetables come to prominence, and this is also high season for traditional Maltese blood oranges. In spring and summer you can enjoy more salad vegetables and fruits as the weather warms up.
However, as Malta has a relatively mild climate, there are many fruits and vegetables that can be grown all year round, so there is always a good variety.
Discovering street food in Malta on a walking tour
On one of our latest trips to Malta we took a Valletta Street Food and Culture Walking Tour. This was a lot of fun and it gave us a great insight into traditional Maltese food.
The tour lasts about three hours and combines some historic discovery of the capital city with samplings of a full day’s worth of traditional food in Malta. You try a breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as various other snacks and drinks in between.
You can read our full review of the Valletta street food tour, or check availability using the form below:
Maltese food: street food, snacks and starters
When we visited Malta for the first time, pastizzi was one of the few local foods we had already heard about, and we couldn’t wait to try one. This hand-held snack is made with filo pastry and filled with either mushy peas or ricotta cheese. It’s a little bit like an empanada, or a smaller version of a Cornish pasty.
While you can consume pastizzi at any time of day, it’s a local tradition to eat it for breakfast. We thought it was perfect for a mid-morning or afternoon snack to keep us fuelled in between sightseeing.
Where can you try the best pastizzi in Malta?
You will find pastizzi sold all over Malta, from street carts and little cafés up to high-end restaurants. Honestly, we have never had a bad one. But if you want to try what is reputed to be the best pastizzi in Malta, then head to a rustic little local place called Is-Serkin Crystal Palace Bar in Rabat.
We were given this recommendation by our taxi driver just minutes after we arrived at the Malta International Airport, and it was repeated later by other locals we spoke to.
Is-Serkin Crystal Palace Bar is an authentic pastizzi bar just a few minutes’ walk from the gates of Mdina, the old walled city inside the town of Rabat. When we walked in, it was filled with local construction workers enjoying a mid-afternoon snack. We thought the peas filling was particularly good – give it a try!
2. Maltese olives
If you sit down for a restaurant meal in Malta, the chances are you will be served some olives to nibble on before your main courses arrive. Olive trees have been grown in Malta for thousands of years, and so their yield has a become a staple of the Maltese diet.
The soil in Malta is perfect for olive production, and dozens of varieties are grown across the islands. Maltese olives are some of the best you will try anywhere in the world, so make sure you don’t miss out.
3. Spicy chicken sandwich in ftira bread
There are many different bread varieties to try in Malta, but ftira is the most widely produced, and one you will often encounter when exploring.
Ftira is a flat-baked bread made from sourdough, usually in a ring shape. It has a crusty exterior but a lovely, spongy inside texture that’s fantastic to try when freshly baked.
Ftira is used for various purposes, including as a pizza base. But the most common way to consume it is in a wholesome sandwich. Try heading to Grano, a side-street café in Valletta, at lunchtime. This place is adored for its spicy ftira sandwiches filled with pulled chicken and a siracha-infused mayonnaise. You might need to queue a while, but it’s worth the wait!
There was a time when I was squeamish about eating snails, but I am so glad I eventually got over it. Snails are commonly associated with French cuisine, but they’re also a traditional food in Malta, as well as several other Mediterranean countries.
Snails in Malta are typically served as a starter or appetiser. I tried a bowl of them smothered in a tasty aromatic tomato sauce, but you will also find them flavoured with herbs and spices. You are typically provided with a toothpick to dig the snail meat out from the shell.
The snails consumed in Malta are caught from the land and then fasted for several days to cleanse them. They are cooked in salty water, which gives them almost a seafood-like quality.
The best time to eat snails in Malta is during the autumn months, when they are in high season. This is when you’ll find a lot more of them showing up on restaurant menus and store shelves.
5. Ġbejna (Maltese cheese)
There’s nothing we enjoy more when travelling than trying new and different cheeses. There are many to be discovered across the Maltese islands, and the most popular type is ġbejna.
Ġbejna cheese (or plural, ġbejniet) has been made in Malta for centuries. It’s a soft, creamy cheese made with either sheep’s milks or goat’s milk. Although it is unique, ġbejna shares some textural qualities and usage traditions with mozzarella; it is often a staple in salads or sharing platters, in sandwiches, or used as a filling for ravioli.
Order some Maltese soup (more on this below) and you’ll often find it served with cheeselets of ġbejna. When served as part of a platter, ġbejna is often flavoured with pepper, which was the case when we first tried it. It’s utterly delicious and you’ll probably want to buy some to take home!
6. Maltese sausage
Maltese sausage, or Zalzett tal-Malti as you might see it on menus, is full of spice and flavour. I tried some as part of a delicious sharing platter in Merkanti restaurant in Valletta, and you will find it all over the country in delis, charcuteries, markets and restaurants.
Maltese sausage has a very particular spicy, herby flavour, made with salt, garlic and coriander. It’s quite strong and is just delicious as a snack with a cool glass of Maltese beer or a glass of red wine.
Maltese food: traditional dishes
7. Lampuki pie
If you are lucky enough to visit Malta in winter, it’s just the right time to try some lampuki pie caught freshly from the ocean. Our first visit was at the end of lampuki season, and this was one of the most wholesome, filling and satisfying Maltese traditional dishes I have tried in the country.
Lampuki, also known as dorado, is a fish of the same species as dolphin, and it is native to Maltese waters. It migrates past the islands between August and December, which is the best time to try it (although you might still see it served at other times in the year using frozen lampuki).
The fish has a strong flavour and meaty texture. A typical lampuki pie is fleshed out with plenty of fresh vegetables, olives, garlic and capers, all brought together inside a puffy, buttery crust.
I tried a lampuki pie at Tepie’s Coffee Bar in Victoria, the main town on Gozo island. It was sumptuous, and just what I needed after a morning of sightseeing.
8. Kusksu (Maltese soup)
Soup is a popular feature of Maltese cuisine, and there are various types to try. If you are looking for a warming, vitamin-filled fix, then go for a bowl of kusksu.
Kusksu soup is typically made with broad beans, small pasta pieces, peas and herbs. Various other veggies might be added, along with eggs, and if you’re lucky there will be a healthy dollop of ġbejna cheese too.
The best time to try kusksu is during the spring, when broad beans are in season. Many restaurants serve it as a starter, but I found it so filling that it would have been enough on its own as a main! Try it at Café Jubilee in Valletta, one of our very favourite spots for eating traditional Maltese food.
9. Fried rabbit (or stewed)
Rabbit is one of the most popular meats in Maltese cuisine. We rarely sat down at a restaurant where it wasn’t on the menu in some form. It is also the focus of a traditional Maltese celebration, called fenkata, when families gather or go out to eat rabbit.
Stewed rabbit, or stuffat tal-fenek, is the national dish of Malta. It is typically slow-cooked over several hours in a tomato-based sauce with potatoes, vegetables, garlic and red wine.
We tried rabbit in another of its classic Maltese styles, known as fenek moqli; fried in garlic and olive oil. Rabbit is a tender, succulent meat, and the garlic and herbs really bring out its rich flavours. This is a delicious, satisfying dish typically served with french fries.
10. Maltese ravioli
Now we return to Café Jubilee in Valletta, where the acclaimed signature dish is called “Nanna’s Ravioli”. The name is a bit of a clue here: ravioli is a long-standing traditional Maltese food, typically made for family dinners with recipes handed down over several generations.
The ravioli at Café Jubilee really is a must-try while you are in Malta if you want a wonderful example of the national cuisine. Egg pasta parcels are filled with delicious home-made goat’s cheese, and topped with a subtle tomato and herby sauce that gives the perfect balance of flavours.
Ravioli is quite a filling, stodgy dish, so it’s a good one to order in those moments when you’re famished and in need of some comfort food.
11. Horse meat stew
It’s a lesser-known fact that horse meat is a delicacy in Malta. Horse meat is not anywhere near as ubiquitous as rabbit in the country; to eat it, you will need to seek out traditional restaurants that still have it on the menu. You are more likely to find it the further out into the countryside villages you go.
Horse can be quite a tough meat if it’s not cooked correctly, and so it is most commonly prepared in a stew to keep it soft and tender. The stew is made with similar ingredients to rabbit stew; tomato, red wine, onions, garlic, citrus, herbs and spices.
Horse meat is not to everybody’s taste, and is seen as controversial in some cultures, but its consumption in Malta dates back to when people in rural farming communities needed the meat to survive.
I tried some horse meat at Merkanti, one of the few restaurants in Malta that offers it on the menu. I’m always drawn to meats I haven’t tried before, so couldn’t resist it – and it wasn’t bad at all! But it seems like quite an acquired taste, and rabbit is more likely to be an instant hit for tourists.
12. Maltese platter or salad
One of the best ways to sample and enjoy a variety of Maltese delicacies is to try a salad or sharing platter. These will typically combine local meats, ġbejna cheese, olives, fruits, nuts, sundried tomatoes, and fresh salad.
Lisa tried a delicious Maltese salad while I chowed down on my lampuki pie at Tepie’s Coffee shop in Gozo. The combination of colours on the plate was mesmerising! Not to mention the wonderful array of flavours.
Salads are a great option if you are looking for a light lunch, or alternatively a sharing platter is perfect to graze on with family or friends over a couple of afternoon drinks.
13. Maltese barbeque
If there is one part of Maltese culture that reminds me of being back home in the UK, it’s the summer BBQ season. When the weather gets warm, both of our countries share a love for indulging in an extravaganza of chargrilled meats.
You will find all sorts of meats cooked on a traditional Maltese BBQ: lamb koftas, steaks, marinated chicken, pork or lamb sausages, seafood, you name it. It’s typically accompanied by an array of side dishes; potato salads and coleslaws, like we’re used to in the UK, and also those with a more Mediterranean vibe, like pasta salads, couscous and flatbreads.
I took the photo above just before I was about to tuck into some Maltese BBQ on a Blue Lagoon, beaches and bays sunset cruise. If you happen to take this cruise, make sure you opt in for the BBQ – it’s incredible, and you get a lot of food for the investment!
There are various restaurants where you can try Maltese barbecued meats, such as The Smokehouse in Gzira, which is close to where we stayed on our first trip. But in summer, the most authentic experience is to set up for a proper beach BBQ. Check out this guide to beach BBQ spots in Malta to find out about the rules and regulations.
14. Lamb dinner (Maltese Easter tradition)
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If your trip to Malta happens to be during the Easter period, then you can partake in the local festive celebrations by having a roast lamb dinner.
Easter Sunday is traditionally a family day in the country, and the lamb dinner is the centrepiece. The cut of meat is typically slow-roasted and infused with garlic, rosemary, thyme and fennel, and served together with potatoes and vegetables.
If you are visiting as a tourist and want to indulge in some of this, then you can book into one of the many restaurants that offer Easter dinners, like U Bistrot in St Julians.
15. Maltese pizza (with lots of toppings!)
When you think of pizza, Italy is of course the country that first springs to mind. But Malta has adopted the classic Italian dish and developed its own unique take on it.
The thing that really defines a Maltese pizza is the gargantuan amount of toppings! Just look at the example above, which we tried on our first trip to Malta at a pizza restaurant in St Julians (which has sadly since closed). Meat, eggs, mushrooms, olives, cheese, capers, onions and more, all packed onto that ftira bread base.
If you want to try some Maltese pizza, you are not short of options. Pizza restaurants are omnipresent in every town of Malta, and you can hardly walk around a corner without finding one.
Maltese food: traditional sweet treats and desserts
If you have a sweet tooth, then you must try imqaret while you are in Malta. This is a versatile sweet treat that you will see everywhere from Valletta street food carts and village patisseries to dessert menus in fancy restaurants.
Imqaret is a crispy, deep-fried pastry cake with a delicious date paste filling. It is a North African delicacy by origin, with its roots in Malta dating back hundreds of years to when the country was under the rule of the Arab Empire.
Eat your imqaret while it’s hot. If you have it for dessert, it’s lovely with a dollop of ice cream.
17. Qagħaq tal-għasel Christmas honey rings
Christmas in Malta brings its own special customs, and one of those is eating these delicious qagħaq tal-għasel honey rings. I had a taste of one of these together with a traditional Maltese coffee at Cafe Micallef in Valletta during the Valletta Street Food and Culture Walking Tour.
These little pastry cakes have a honey treacle filling, infused with all the spices and flavours that you associate with a hot cup of mulled wine at Christmas – think nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and brown sugar.
Honey rings are traditional during the winter festive period, but you can find them pretty much any time of year. Look out for them in delis, bakeries and supermarkets.
Another sweet treat tied to festive celebrations in Malta is figolla (or plural figolli), which is traditionally made and eaten during Easter. Figolli are flat-baked cakes that comes in various shapes associated with easter, such as lambs, hearts or crosses.
Figolli are extremely sweet! They are filled with an almond-based paste that tastes like marzipan, and covered with chocolate, icing and decorations, usually topped with half a mini Easter egg. Definitely one to try or take away as a gift if you visit at this time of year.
19. Red coconut cake
Pink lamington coconut cakes originate from Australia, but they have somehow made their way to Malta and become hugely popular. You will notice them on the shelves of many bakeries and in the glass cake cabinets of coffee shops around the country.
In Malta, you may see the red coconut cakes called pasta mir-roża or kejk ahmar tal-coconut. They are a classic sponge cake on the inside, smothered with a raspberry or strawberry coating and covered with coconut flakes.
Red coconut cakes are delicious with a cup of coffee if you’re stopping for a break while sightseeing in Malta. I tried one in a trendy back-alley coffee shop in Valletta called Kuncett, which was a nice quiet place to sit down for a while and escape the busier streets.
20. Maltese apple pie
There are many different desserts you can try in Malta, but one of the most satisfying is the simple, classic, warm apple pie.
When I had a lunch at Café Jubilee in Valletta, I asked the friendly staff if they could recommend a traditional local dessert. The menu featured various options, such as a Maltese trifle or walnut tart. They suggested I try the apple pie, a particular local favourite.
The warm apple pie at Café Jubilee is reflective of a dessert that is enjoyed all over the country, especially after big family dinners. It’s served with a single scoop of rum and raisin ice cream, which is the perfect balance for the spicy, cinnamon flavours of the pie filling.
That completed my wholesome, hearty, filling three-course extravaganza of a kusksu soup, Maltese ravioli and apple pie. Perfect washed down with a cold Maltese beer! Which brings us neatly onto the next section…
Traditional drinks in Malta
For the full experience of traditional food in Malta, try pairing your meal with a local drink. Whether you drink alcohol or not, prefer coffees or sweeter tipples, there is something here to suit your taste. These are some of the traditional drinks in Malta you can try.
If there were such thing as a national soft drink, in Malta it would be Kinnie. This carbonated soft drink is produced only in Malta, and you will find it everywhere across the islands.
Kinnie has an unusual bittersweet flavour that derives from Maltese oranges, matched by its orange branding and colourful tint. It’s quite sharp and distinct, the kind of taste that will make you wince at the first sip, but give it time! When the sun is shining, a cool glass of Kinnie is incredibly refreshing.
It’s mostly enjoyed simply as a soft drink, but you will also see Kinnie used as a spirit mixer, especially with vodka.
Malta might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of coffee destinations, but it was once one of the most important places in the world for coffee production.
Coffee culture in Malta dates back to before Roman times; it was one of the first European countries where coffee began to be consumed. By the 16th century, Valletta had a third as many coffee shops as London (despite being a tiny fraction of its size), and was considered one of the world’s most important hubs for coffee.
Today, coffee is still an intrinsic part of Maltese culture. Artisan coffee shops are sprinkled among the towns and villages, and especially prominent in Valletta. Coffee Circus, for example, serves delicious freshly ground coffee – I enjoyed a cup at two of their different cafés, in Valletta and Gzira.
Traditional Maltese coffee is a unique drink, but it’s surprisingly hard to find somewhere that serves it. It has a Christmassy flavour, infused with chicory, cloves and aniseed (that’s a cup of it you can see in the section above, paired with a Maltese honey ring). Cafe Micallef is one of the rare places you can try it, but it’s not always on the menu – if you ask, they will prepare it especially.
The Maltese climate possesses many of the qualities needed for wine production. With warm weather all year round, high humidity, and enough rainfall per year to keep the soil happy, many varieties of grape can be grown on the islands.
With Italy and France being its nearest neighbours, Malta faces tough competition on the winemaking front, but for a small nation it holds its own in terms of quality vintages.
Just a minute’s walk away from St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, on a cosy back-street corner, you will find a small boutique wine shop and bar called Ellul. I culminated my latest trip to Malta by sitting down here to try some Maltese wine, and the friendly owners were more than happy to recommend one to try. (In case you are wondering, the wine I tried was a Vermentino Neptunus by San Niklaw Estate.)
Although the wine produced in Malta is predominantly red, whites are very popular for their refreshing qualities in the heat. I certainly appreciated it!
Want to learn more about Malta’s wine scene? For an informative introduction, you can take a 3 cities tour and wine tasting, which runs on Tuesdays and Fridays. It’s a great half-day trip if you’re staying near Valletta, setting off early to explore Cospicua, Vittoriosa, and Senglea just across the Grand Harbour, before tasting some wines and snacks at a local winery.
Many countries have a national favourite beer, and in Malta, it’s Cisk. Its bright yellow branding is a feature wherever you look, on flags and emblems outside pubs, and displayed on shop windows and storefronts.
Cisk is a light, golden lager that has been brewed in Malta for nearly a century. Whether you want to buy some cans to quaff in your accommodation, sit outside a bar with a cool glass on a summery day, or pair it with some hearty Maltese food in a restaurant, this stuff is sure to add enjoyment to your trip!
Look out for other varieties of Cisk to try, such as the non-alcohol version or others with a fruit-flavoured twist.
Farsons Maltese ale
The Maltese brewery that makes Cisk beer is called Farsons, and it also produces a variety of ales. If you are a real ale or craft beer lover, then look out for these in pubs and bars around the country.
We stopped for a refreshing beer at the cosy City of London Bar in St Julian’s on our first trip to Malta. As always, we asked the bartender to recommend a local beer to try, and he suggested a glass of Farsons Double Red Strong Ale.
This ale is true to its name, deep red in colour, and sharp and hoppy to the taste. Just the way I like it! It’s a lovely beer to enjoy slowly while you take a rest at the end of a long afternoon.
Great places to eat traditional food in Malta
Throughout this article I’ve mentioned several of the restaurants and cafés where we have tried traditional Maltese food. I also thought it would be useful to round them up here, along with a couple more recommendations.
Add these places to your list when you are planning what to eat in Malta:
- Café Jubilee: homely, rustic place to try local fare at very good prices, with restaurants in both Valletta and Victoria (Gozo).
- Grano: fantastic Valletta café where you can try chunky sandwiches on freshly made ftira bread.
- The Submarine: another sandwich spot in Valletta, highly popular at lunchtime. Be prepared to queue! We had a lot of fun here building our own sandwich, and the ftira bread is excellent.
- Merkanti: one of the newest restaurants on the scene in the capital, in the rooftop space above Valletta Food Market. Lots of traditional Maltese food on the menu.
- The Smokehouse: quality restaurant in Gzira where you can try a range of Maltese-style grilled meats.
- Oceana at the Hilton Malta: seafood specialist restaurant at one of Malta’s few five-star hotels. I tried a meal there during a workation at Hilton Malta and was not disappointed.
- Coffee Circus: excellent coffee shop, which you’ll find in various locations around Malta.
- Caffe Cordina: Valletta coffee shop that has been running since 1837. Amazing for trying local cakes.
- Tepie’s Coffee Bar: restaurant in the heart of Victoria on Gozo island, serving tasty Maltese food.
- Is-Serkin Crystal Palace Bar: local café in Rabat that makes one of the best pastizzi in Malta.
Have you tried any traditional Maltese food, or is there something we haven’t covered? Let us know in the comments below.
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