Analysis

Eating on the islands

By Xavier Romero-Frias

24 April 2017

As times have changed, so has the Maldives’ unique cuisine and culture

(This is an essay from our April 2013 print quarterly ‘Farms, Feasts, Famines’. See more from the issue here.)

The Maldives has transformed somewhat in the last couple of decades. A few years ago while I was living in India, I met my friend Ahmed Nasim from the village of Funad on Fua Mulaku, a large and lonely island located far south of the Maldivian atoll chain. We had not seen each other for almost 20 years, and Nasim was eager to tell me about the changes that had occurred since the end of my 13 years in the Maldives: a harbour had been built on Fua Mulaku, and there were now paved roads. There was even an airport under construction.

Nasim and I shared good memories; he had often entertained me with local horror stories in the long, quiet Fua Mulaku evenings. I vividly recall the soft, warm light of oil lamps and the tranquility of his home, the two of us sitting on the large swing and his children playing or sleeping close to us.

 

I casually asked him about the Handi, a female ghost that used to scare the local people and that many swore they had seen.

“It’s not there anymore!” Nasim said.

I was surprised by how quickly and firmly he answered, so I asked him, “How come?”

“All our ghosts went away after they put round-the-clock electricity on the island.”

What we ate on Fua Mulaku
It is not just the gentle lifestyle of the Maldivians that has undergone shifts since I first came to the atolls in 1979. Local food culture has experienced major adjustments in the interim, the biggest being from monotony to variety. The oceanic environment and the lack of fertile soil on the flat coral islands imposed a Spartan lifestyle with a diet of fish, coconut and starch. Average daily meals on most islands consisted of rice and boiled fish, eaten with fish broth. Pieces of onion, chillies and a few drops of lime juice, whenever available, completed the repast. Maldivians enjoyed the fare without complaint, while demanding quality and freshness.

Some islands also grew tubers such as taro. People ate with their hands, engaging an extra sense in the enjoyment of food. The grey, boiled taro would be squeezed into a fine puree by pressing the tubers firmly, one at a time, against the interior of the hand using the knuckle of the thumb. This puree was mixed with generous spoonfuls of fish broth and grated coconut.

Taro cultivation had particular importance on some large islands in the southern atolls. As a rule, women were in charge of the muddy taro patches. By the time they were teenagers, Fua Mulaku girls were experts at harvesting taro, and carried heavy baskets back home, gracefully balancing them on their heads. During World War II, when a British Royal Air Force (RAF) base was built on Gan, the southernmost island of the Maldives, nearby Fēdu islanders lost their carefully-tended taro fields.

Currently, my friend Afrah tells me, very few local girls tend the taro fields. Except for a few old women who still cling to tradition, taro cultivation is mainly carried out by migrant workers from Bangladesh. This is a new development. Back in the 1980s, one saw only locals in the country – the few tourists were tucked away in the handful of resorts. The plight of these Bengali workers, seldom treated well by the locals, is often the subject of my exchanges with Maldivian friends, who express concern that the island traditions of graciousness and hospitality have been weakened.

Wherever taro of the marsh-grown variety was not available, other tubers such as giant taro, cassava and sweet potato, as well as boiled breadfruit and also a variety of large unripe bananas, were eaten in the same way. Boiled giant taro is yellowish and its taste is quite pleasant, but a meal of giant taro mixed with grated coconut and fish broth leaves a strong itchiness on the roof of the mouth. This is why the tuber is known as kahanala, ‘itchy taro’ in Divehi.

In the traditional subsistence diet based on fish, coconut and starch, diversity was not a need or an option

A starchy pudding known as bondibaiy, popular as a dessert in certain ceremonies, is prepared by slowly cooking rice or any tuber and adding coconut milk. A few pieces of aromatic screwpine are added for flavour. Traditionally this pudding was sweetened with Divehi hakuru, the Maldivian sugar obtained by heating coconut-palm sap. Today, few Maldivians want to make a profession of climbing the palms, and so sap tappers (rāverin) have almost entirely disappeared. Maldivian sugar is now a rare commodity.

Bōkibā, another enduring Maldivian favourite, is a thick cake available in two varieties: the spicy, non-sweet one that contains fish and chillies, and the sweet one, smooth and starchy. The latter is flavoured by sprinkling finely chopped onion on top before baking. Maldivians love the seared-onion taste of this dessert, but it took me a while to get used to it, for flavouring cakes with onion is unusual anywhere else. Pieces of these heavy cakes, served with tea, were the traditional food on the morning of Kuda Idu – the first day after Ramzan that islanders would eat breakfast, after the mandatory prayers at the main mosque. Bōkibā was also the snack for fishermen to take on their fishing trips, as was fathafolhi, a flat pancake made with similar ingredients that was baked between banana leaves. Fua Mulaku fishermen favoured alaia kaishia mahaia, a snack consisting of pieces of boiled taro, coconut and Maldive Fish that I found quite appetising.

Currently, few Maldivians want to make a profession of climbing the palms, and so sap tappers (rāverin) have almost entirely disappeared

On several islands, the core of the cultivated screwpine fruit (Pandanus odorifer), locally known as kashikeyo or kēvah, was an essential food item. In order to break up its fibrous texture, it was cut into very fine slices using a special knife sharpened only at the end. Women held this knife against the hip or thigh, using the weight of their bodies to cut the fruit. Kashikeyo has a pleasant, sweetish, carrot-like taste, and it was mostly used to cook sweets such as bondibaiy pudding, or a liquid drink sweetened with palm sugar that was generally drunk warm. I found that a soup made with the screwpine fruit, known as lonokēvah on Fua Mulaku, had an excellent taste, but my hosts served it very reluctantly, considering it an inferior dish.

Certain tubers such as jícama needed to be grated and soaked in water, with the water changed at least seven times, in order to neutralise the poison within. The result was hittalafuh, a kind of flour that was used to prepare flat cakes. When all other tubers were scarce, even the highly poisonous tubers of the flame lily (Gloriosa superba) were processed in this laborious manner to make them edible. Near-famine conditions used to be common in the Maldives, which is why the islanders went to great extents to obtain starchy foods to supplement the fish in their diet. In times of scarcity people ate papaya stems, banana roots and the leaves of certain shoreline bushes common throughout the archipelago, such as beach cabbage and the octopus bush. These coarse items, however, were not appreciated in times of plenty.

Maldivians living on certain islands back in the 1970s were able to farm sorghum and millet in dry fields, and those fortunate enough to live on large, swampy islands could cultivate taro. But if the wetlands were brackish, not much could be harvested other than mangroves such as kandū (Bruguiera), which have edible pods. The green kandū pods look much like fresh beans, but they are tougher and need to be cooked for a long time with several changes of water to soften them and take away their bitterness. Once on Hurā, an island in North Male Atoll where there were mangroves, I saw my friends preparing kandū and asked if I could taste it. Politely, they brushed aside my request and gave me a bowl of bondibaiy pudding instead. They assumed that kandū was too coarse an item to give a guest.

As I discovered more of the ingredients and dishes of the Maldivian diet, I was also learning about the intricacies of the age-old island hospitality, always closely connected to food. The women of any household were invariably happy with me because I always relished their food and left my plate clean. Formerly, all cooks were women, except aboard ships; the kitchen was no place for a man.

Old tastes, new tastes
Fish is king of the Maldivian diet. The skipjack tuna is the most valued fish in the island gastronomy, its firmness of flesh, dark red colour and rich taste making it the favourite. Skipjack preserves well as ‘Maldive Fish’, which in the past was a reserve for lean times and was also a key trade item. Second to skipjack come other pelagic fishes related to it, such as yellowfin tuna, little tunny and frigate mackerel. The marlin and wahoo, whose flesh is firm though somewhat whitish, are also generally appreciated, but not as much as they are in nearby Kerala on the Indian coast. The catch of large fish is diminishing, my friends say, due to the foreign boats engaged in industrial-scale fishing in the Indian Ocean. Apparently those large trawlers leave nothing in their wake wherever they pass.

Fish caught close to the reefs or within lagoons, known generically as farumas, were not regarded highly in former times. However, some of the larger species of farumas, such as red snapper, bluefin jack and mahi-mahi, are increasingly welcome on the table of average Maldivians. In the past, many of the reef fish were difficult to preserve using traditional methods. Nowadays, however, cold storage units and shops with deep freezers have made a wider variety of fish available for a longer time, there being less need to rely on the classical methods of preservation. Meanwhile, those who work at tourist resorts have come to realise how much the foreigners appreciate reef fish.

Parrot fish, with its soft, somewhat smelly flesh, was traditionally despised, as were moray eels which, unlike in Polynesia where they are a delicacy, were never eaten in the Maldives. My friend Magieduruge Ibrahim Didi, however, had tasted a moray eel once out of curiosity. For this he quickly earned a reputation on his island, and it followed him years later when he was already an old man.

Before the arrival of tourists, Maldivians ate lobster, clams, squid and octopus only in food emergencies, when ‘proper’ fish was impossible to find. Even then it was not considered advisable for pregnant women to eat lobster or octopus. But even back in the 1980s, I met quite a few people who enjoyed the chewy flesh of the octopus. In the time-honoured Maldivian cuisine, octopus, as well as tough-fleshed fish such as marlin and shark, is cut into bite-sized pieces, daubed with a spicy chilli mixture and pan-seared over a strong fire. This method, known as hanaakurun, yields a somewhat dry but delicious dish. My friend Rasheed, a merchant-liner cook from Male’, claims that the abundant chillies and garlic in the mixture are needed to mask the unpleasant aftertaste and smell of the species.

Mūsa, a cook from Maradū in Addu Atoll, told me that he had learned to prepare crabs and lobsters for British military personnel before 1976, when the RAF base on Gan was closed. In order to cater to his seafood-loving British employers, he caught large crabs in a brackish lake on the northern part of Hitadu island, and lobsters on the Gan reef at night using a lamp. Mūsa cooked them as kirugarudiya, a mild curry made sour with pieces of green mango or bilimbi along with coconut milk, and added a touch of yellow colour with turmeric. Usually, Maldivians add spicy green chillies to the kirugarudiya, but the British asked Mūsa to desist.

Such funerary meals were part of the traditional way of island life, but, discouraged by Islamic hardliners, they have been replaced today by birthday and wedding parties

After the RAF base closed, Mūsa found employment in the then-nascent tourist industry and worked as a cook in one of the first resorts. Years later, long after the British had left, he still enjoyed the dishes he had invented while at Gan, and prepared them for his friends and family. I can confirm that Mūsa’s lobster kirugarudiya over steamed white rice is outstanding.

In the past there were some attempts to cultivate rice in the marshy ground of Fua Mulaku, but none succeeded. Since ancient times, all rice in Maldives has been imported. Historically, parboiled rice from Burma was the Maldivians’ favourite. It kept longer in storage, and the grains had a firmness that the islanders enjoyed. When rice spoiled, it was dried in the sun and reused to make sweets. Rice was considered high-status food, even on islands where tubers were the more customary fare. During special celebrations, such as funerary ceremonies celebrated as part of an extensive event that involved the ritual reading of the Quran, or during visits by high officials, rice was served alongside different curries. The greater the variety of dishes offered to the guests, the more prestigious the occasion. Habitually, at funerary ritual meals, a whole array of dishes in bowls were beautifully displayed along with bunches of ripe bananas around a huge central basin heaped high with a conical pile of rice.

Contrary to the leisurely pace of most Maldivian meals, I was amazed at how quickly mourners ate at funerary meals. Batches of guests took turns gulping down food as fast as they could, ending the meal by swallowing full glasses of water and chewing betel leaves with areca nut, and then swiftly leaving the house in order to make way for the next batch of quick-eating visitors. I was initially astonished that the guests would depart without so much as a ‘by-your-leave’ to their hosts, but this was evidently the local custom. Such funerary meals were part of island tradition, but, discouraged by Islamic hardliners, they have been gradually abandoned to be replaced by birthday and wedding parties and the like.

Fish, chicken, turtle, more fish
On my first trip to the southern atolls in 1979, I took the Comet, a slow wooden boat overloaded with goods that regularly made the journey between Addu Atoll and Male and was named after the first passenger jet that had landed at the Gan RAF base. The Comet’s captain was a talkative fellow who was more often smiling than not. The travellers made themselves comfortable with their pillows and mats on the overcrowded deck. It was there, the morning after the first long night aboard, that I first tried mas huni, a mixture of freshly-grated coconut and Maldive Fish that is eaten with chapatis at breakfast time.

Despite its high status, by and large the islanders did not consider it refined to eat rice in the morning. Accordingly, those that could afford flour would eat chapatis for breakfast, as they still do today. Chapatis are known as roshi in standard Divehi; in the southern atolls, where that word is considered rude, chapatis are referred to as folhi. There are different varieties of roshi: the most common are thin ones made with dough of only flour and some oil; another type, with grated coconut also added to the dough, are thicker.

Mas huni was eaten leisurely while sipping sweetened black tea, and with freshly baked chapatis it formed a delicious combination. Later I discovered that every house had its own recipe, and that it was of the utmost importance to slice the little purple onions paper-thin, for the secret of Maldivian cuisine was cooking with care. Carelessness was frowned upon, and people complained loudly if there was any relatively big piece of onion in the mixture: “Is this mas huni? What is this cook doing?” When fish was scarce, finely chopped green leaves of certain local plants – such as kullafila, mābulhā and massāgu – replaced the fish in mas huni in smaller or greater proportion. Even though leaves added to the dish, unless the situation was desperate and there was no fish at all, the cook would be sure to add a certain amount of fish to make the dish deserve its name, for mas huni means ‘fish-grated coconut’.

Although everyone in the country still praises traditionally made curry paste, present-day Maldivians find it more practical to buy readymade paste at convenience stores

Mas huni spoiled quickly in the humid, tropical island climate. In rural households, any mas huni that had not been eaten in the morning was already stale by midday, and provided food for the household chicken. Even today, Maldivians prefer to eat the mas huni right after preparation, for it tastes best fresh and does not keep well even in a refrigerator.

Along with mas huni, curries remain another characteristic local preparation, normally cooked with tuna and whatever vegetable is available. In the Maldives, fish is almost never cooked together with rice; the one exception being masbaiy, a local dish somewhat similar to biryani, made by cooking diced fish and rice with peppercorns and turmeric together in the same pot. Mas riha, the most important curry in Maldivian cuisine, is cooked with fresh diced tuna and a mix of spices. Even though vegetables were used in certain curries, these could not be called true vegetarian preparations. All traditional Maldivian curries contain some proportion of fish in order to give them the ‘right’ taste. If a vegetable curry contained too little fish, Maldivians would complain: “Mas raha nu la! It does not taste like fish.” Ideally, curries would include Maldive Fish that was not too dry. The larger and more generous the pieces in the curry, the more the guests would praise their hosts.

Kukulhu riha, chicken curry, is prepared using a different spice mixture. Formerly, kukulhu riha was kept simmering for a long time since the meat of the local chicken was quite tough. It was advisable to get hold of a chicken first before making plans to eat it on a particular day; catching a kukulhu was not easy, for they ran so fast that they almost flew. The life of these mostly wild local chickens included hunting for food on the vast expanse of dry reef at low tide, and sleeping on high tree branches to avoid prowling cats. Mohamed Ali (‘Philippe’), who in the 1980s used to bring tourists to out-of-the-way corners of the archipelago on his yacht, the Baraabaru, told me that he once barbecued a Maldivian kukulhu, but the meat was so tough it was left uneaten. Nowadays, Maldivians mostly consume imported frozen chicken.

Turtle curry used to be prepared in the same way as chicken curry. A large leatherback turtle would yield many kilos of fine meat, which was normally distributed among the islanders and cooked right away, for it was not possible to preserve it in the traditional way. Turtles are now no longer served on the Maldivian table owing to strict protection measures.

With the passing of the years, as the capital has become noisier and more crowded, the number of restaurants in Male has increased

Hardly any vegetable grew naturally on the sandy coral soil of the Maldives. Those few that did included small eggplants, pumpkins, torā (sponge gourds), chichanda (snake gourds) and muranga (drumstick), as well as chillies. Even these were often cultivated only with much effort. In their absence unripe green bananas, as well as certain green leaves, were also used in curries. In the past, at any given moment there could be an excess of a particular vegetable on one island and a total lack of it on another located not too far away. Traditional vegetables were grown on a small scale, and there was no established marketing and distribution system, often making them difficult to get hold of.

Quite a few Maldivian curries are given their singular flavour by means of a locally made paste known as havādu, made by mixing spices such as coriander, fennel, black pepper, cumin, dry chillies, turmeric and curry leaves with grated coconut. The mixture was stirred in a pan over a searing fire, after which it was pounded with a pestle in heavy brass mortars and stored in glass jars. Although everyone in the country still praises traditionally made curry paste, present-day Maldivians find it more practical to buy ready-made havadu paste at convenience stores. Local cooking also uses lonumirus, a wet red-chilli-based mixture that is ground on flat stone grinders and used widely to make dishes spicier, including to daub fish in preparation for barbecuing.

The tastes of Ramzan
The preparation of food for the sunset meal during Ramzan – rōda villun, the breaking of the fast – has always been an important social activity in the Maldives. Women used to spend most of the day in the kitchen preparing special drinks, sweets, snacks and dishes. In traditional society, neighbours would help each other and work in the open in a very happy mood.

One typical Ramzan dish, a sweet-dough preparation known as donkeyo kajuru, contains mashed banana and sugar, and used to be a convenient sweet snack to prepare when there was an abundance of ripe bananas in a household. Folhi are sweet pancakes that are folded in the middle, and are known as fonifolhi in the southern atolls, where a folhi is a simple chapati. Similar sweets, such as fathafolhi, included egg in the mixture, often using turtle eggs instead of chicken eggs. This was especially so on Huvadhu Atoll, where there was an abundance of sea turtles in the past before the over-harvesting of their eggs – despite official protection and a ban on trading turtle shell – caused the population of these oceanic reptiles to crash.

Sweet drinks are also popular for breaking the Ramzan fast at sunset. These were originally prepared with locally available fruits, which have been partly replaced by imported syrup. The islanders love the new, garish colours, and condensed milk is often added to the mixture. The Maldivians’ favourite is a sweetened drink with floating pieces of watermelon. In the past, watermelons were brought in from Toddū, an island located to the northwest of Male Atoll. The quality of the watermelons was seldom up to standard, and for a foreigner used to larger and sweeter produce the coral-soil watermelons were disappointing. But it was Ramzan time, and this was the Maldives of over 30 years ago, and the traditional watermelon drink had to be prepared.

Another much-loved Ramzan drink is guava juice. Formerly, during the holy month, the price of guavas in the Male’ market used to shoot up, with people ready to pay exorbitant prices for a handful of them. Other fruits traditionally used to make Ramzan drinks are ripe papaya, lime, mango, Divehi ata (custard apple) and kalhuhuttu mēva (pond apple), a kind of custard apple with an orange-coloured pulp. Not commonly eaten elsewhere, ripe pond apple has a taste somewhere between that of honeydew and overripe peach. Eventually, imported fruits and vegetables from India, Sri Lanka and Thailand allowed a greater assortment of Ramzan foods and drinks. But despite improved supplies, prices still tend to rise during the holy month owing to great demand.

Savoury snacks are also popular during Ramzan. These include gulhā, small ball-shaped dumplings stuffed with a mixture of tuna, onion, grated coconut and chilli. Depending upon the household and the cook, a few drops of lime, turmeric and chopped curry leaves are also added to the mixture, which is stuffed into the dough and then deep-fried. Currently, Maldivian culinary purists say that garlic is not to be added to gulhā, but some of the best gulhā I have eaten in the Southern Atolls had garlic and roasted dry chilli added to the filling. Gulhā dough can be made with wheat or rice flour, and the rice-flour gulhā are usually smaller, harder and crunchier. Flattened dough patties stuffed with the same mixture as gulhā and baked instead of fried are known as masroshi. Another popular short eat is kavābu, a kind of cutlet based on the same ingredients as the gulhā stuffing, minus the grated coconut, which are all mixed with flour, and often also with dal, before the lumps are deep-fried.

Hiti, a starchy curry made with boiled breadfruit or young taro together with curry paste, is also typically eaten during Ramzan, a little while after the breaking of the fast at sunset. Unlike other Maldivian curries, hiti is not served with chapatis or rice, but as a separate dish on its own, eaten with a spoon as a thick soup.

Eating out
I first arrived in Male in June 1979. Back then I regularly ate in the local teashops – friendly, noisy places mostly located close to the harbour area. The local word for the places was ‘hotel’, although they had little to do with hotels in the strict sense. They had fantastic names such as Queen of the Night, Stella Maris, Moon Café, Beach Crescent and Skyline. Later, there would even be one named Hotel Hilton. The walls were bare and there was no attempt at decoration, only big tables with simple, functional chairs. Overhead fans provided relief from the heat, and in the evening, the harsh luminosity of fluorescent lights lit the interiors.

Back then, having tea was a central custom in the island culture, and the teashops were male territory. The standard fare was a cup of already-sweetened black tea and a few snacks or short eats, which were put before the patrons on white plates in small sets of four. The most successful snacks were gulhā, kavābu, bajiya – the local samosa stuffed with Maldive Fish – masroshi, folhi and pieces of bōkiba, the local cake which comes in spicy and sweet versions. As the years passed, people complained that the gulhā and kavābu were getting smaller and smaller – perhaps an indication of the economic situation.

In Male there was also a place called Icege (Ice house), where people went in the evenings to eat ice cream, dance and listen to live music. It was lit by red, blue and green coloured lamps, and the stage where the band and singers performed imitated the jaws of a large whale. Unlike in the teashops, the crowd at Icege was made up of both men and women. Even though it was a mellow place and no alcohol was served, in 1980 Icege was closed under the hardline policies of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the new leader who allowed tourists to dance but not Maldivians.

Made with tinned, powdered milk from New Zealand, the local ice cream served at Icege was not very tasty, but I found the setting itself fascinating. There were young Maldivians dancing, and sitting around poorly lit tables quietly eating ice cream, clearly enjoying the stylish atmosphere of the establishment. Icege was the nearest thing to a ‘sophisticated’ place in the sleepy capital, then a quiet town of low houses with courtyards shaded by large trees, and unpaved streets that were muddy in the monsoon rains and dusty at other times.

As the years passed, people complained that the gulhā and kavābu were getting smaller and smaller – perhaps an indication of the country’s difficult economic situation

There was also an Indian-owned restaurant in Majeedi Magu, the main street running across Male from east to west. The sign outside read ‘Indian Restuarant’, and the owners let the years pass without correcting the spelling. It was a small room with the walls painted blue. The fare was simple but sensible and successful: rice with Indian-style chicken curry and a bowl of rasam, the traditional South Indian soup, on the side. The place used to be full at lunchtime, especially on Friday when local Indian workers had a holiday, but there was a Maldivian clientele as well.

The difference between traditional teashops and restaurants in the Maldives is that women patrons are welcome in the latter. With the passing of the years, as the capital has become noisier and more crowded, the number of restaurants in Male has multiplied. Some of them have come a long way from the basic establishments of the 1980s. In one resort located on Rangali Island, Ari Atoll, there is even an underwater restaurant 5 metres below sea-level claiming to be the first of its kind in the world. The teashops are currently on the wane, for the tradition of office workers and fishermen meeting for tea has been largely replaced by coffee culture. At present, many of Male’s largely unemployed young generation meet over coffee instead of sweetened black tea. Since they do not have much else to do, young customers usually linger for a long time in these coffee establishments.

Creative preservation
In earlier times, the lack of steady electricity beyond the capital dictated the need to preserve food in traditional ways. These included drying, smoking and boiling. In any traditional house, leftover fish broth or curry was boiled before being put aside for the night, and heated again in the morning. It was a disaster if a big pot of precious food spoiled, so local women were careful not to touch the liquid after having heated it. Even dipping a spoon into the liquid after it had been boiled could prove critical.

One result of this practice was rihākuru, a salty brown fish paste made by boiling tuna broth until most of the water evaporated. The resulting mixture could be preserved in jars for a long time. Rihākuru would substitute fish for the duration of a bad fishing season. In order to improve its taste, it could be processed by frying it with finely-chopped onions, garlic and chillies, along with some curry leaves and a few pieces of aromatic screwpine leaf. This delicious mixture kept for a long time in glass jars. Another mouth-watering preparation is rihākuru diya, made by mixing the brown tuna paste with finely chopped Maldive Fish, green chillies and onion, and adding in coconut milk at room temperature.

Other foods also required careful preservation. Limes and bilimago (bilimbi) were grown on some islands and were used to give food a sour flavour. If there was a surplus of the fruits they could be preserved as lonu lumbō (salty lemon) or asāra (chutney). But there was rarely much fruit left, for the demand was always high and the number of trees was restricted to those few growing in domestic yards. A blight has struck Maldivian lime trees in recent times, wiping out the small local harvest, and at present almost all limes used in Maldivian cuisine are imported.

It was also common for excess taro and breadfruit to be cut into chips and deep-fried using abundant coconut oil. After cooling, the chips would be put into large tins and stored for a long time, to be brought out as a present for visiting relatives and friends, for visits to other islands, or in lean times when other provisions were scarce. Fried breadfruit or taro chips also made excellent snacks during long journeys between distant atolls. Other chips I especially favoured were teluli roshi, made by mixing chopped Maldive Fish, dry chillies, onion and garlic into chapati dough. The flattened raw chapatis were then cut into pieces and deep-fried. The same mixture could be used to make small marble-sized balls that were deep-fried and preserved in the same way. These were so hard that they were known as dagandu gulhā, meaning ‘iron gulhā’.

Some leaves were deep-fried along with garlic, onion and Maldive Fish slices, as well as whole hikandifaiy (curry leaves) and dry chillies, in order to preserve them. Larger leaves such as lhos, from the Pisonia grandis tree, needed to be chopped into small pieces, but the little drumstick leaves common to the islands were already the right size and were used as they were after separating them from their small, hard stems. The oil was drained and the leaves were stored in empty tin cans. Known as teluli faiy, a spoonful of fried leaves was a welcome addition to the daily fare of rice and fish broth.

Sugar – in the past mostly the Maldivian palm-sugar – was also a good stabiliser. Ulhaali was a hard, spiral-shaped sweet popular in Huvadhu Atoll that was deep-fried and stored in cans. Sometimes taro and breadfruit chips were covered with glazed sugar (karu hakuru) and also stored away. Other traditional sweets, such as the tough, disk-shaped āros, made with Maldivian sugar and screwpine fruit or with any starchy tuber, as well as bondi, a sausage-shaped sweet made with tender coconut (gabulhi) flesh and palm sugar, were wrapped in banana leaves before being stored away. Āros and bondi sweets were valuable mercantile commodities when Maldivians sailed across the ocean to Sri Lanka and India on the traditional yearly trade journeys.

Certain foods were preserved by sun-drying them. On the sunny days of the dry season, women would spread mats in the street and put wedges of breadfruit out to dry. Once the sun dropped low, these were gathered into sacks or wooden boxes and brought out again the following day. Dried breadfruit was boiled and eaten with fish broth and grated coconut, but I found the flavour rather too reminiscent of the box or sack in which the wedges had been stored. Unlike fresh boiled breadfruit, the dried variety took on a dark brown colour after being cooked that I didn’t find attractive either. For me it was a source of wonder to see how many islanders, such as my friend and host Karaange Hasan Didi, actually relished a meal of dried breadfruit. But of course I was a foreigner, and some of the islanders’ ways were bound to remain inscrutable to me.

Present-day island homes have refrigerators, making it easy to preserve groceries and fresh vegetables without any significant alterations in taste. By the mid-1980s, some vegetables such as carrots and cabbages began to be imported in large quantities, and for the first time basic salads could be prepared. Still, it was difficult to find more delicate items such as lettuce or strawberries. Nowadays, a number of companies are marketing and distributing fresh products, and all kinds of groceries are easily available, reaching even remote islands. Thanks to modern transport and technology, the number and variety of dishes on the dining table of the average Maldivian has multiplied exponentially.

 

~Xavier Romero-Frias is an authority on Maldivian anthropology. A Spanish writer, scholar and artist, he is fluent in two dialects of the Maldivian language.

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