The Edition
facebook icon twitter icon instagram icon linkedin icon


Iftar Tables Across Maldives

The evolution of Maldivian food culture since the 1970s reflects more than just changes in the serene pace of life.

Ruby Amir
07 April 2024, MVT 16:25
Ruby Amir
07 April 2024, MVT 16:25

The evolution of Maldivian food culture since the 1970s reflects more than just changes in the serene pace of life. It's a journey from culinary monotony to a vibrant tapestry of flavors and traditions. The unique challenges posed by the oceanic environment and the infertile soil of the coral islands shaped a spartan diet dominated by fish, coconut, and starch. Meals were simple affairs, often consisting of rice and boiled fish accompanied by fish broth, onions, chilies, and lime.

The perfect Main Course; Mashed Ala with Garudhiya.-- Photo: Hawwa Amaany Abdulla

On some islands, tubers like taro were cultivated. Using hands instead of cutlery, people heightened their enjoyment of food through tactile sensation. The gray puree was blended with generous spoonfuls of fish broth and coconut. When marsh-grown taro wasn't available, alternatives such as giant taro, cassava, sweet potato, boiled breadfruit, and various large unripe bananas were consumed in a similar manner.

This shift in the food culture is evident in the month of Ramadan where Maldivians seek devoted spiritual harmony through fasting and the communal tradition of Roadha Villun or Iftar (the breaking of the fast) with loved ones. Locally known as ‘Roadha Mas’ , Ramadan practices in Maldives are interestingly enthusiastic in a sense. Maldivian meals are often communal affairs, bringing families and friends together. The practice of eating with one's hands, known as Handa, enhances the sense of togetherness and connection, often emphasized in Ramadan.

Mashuni.-- Photo: Hussain Waheed

Mashuni is a traditional Maldivian dish that has graced breakfast tables around households for generations. Typically eaten for breakfast, it has also become a staple to break fast with, during Ramadan. Each house has their special Mashuni recipe, but it all lies in preparing with care, utmost importance is given on how the person slices the onions for the mashuni, which ultimately needs to be paper thin.

While fish has long been a staple ingredient, modern variations accommodate diverse preferences by incorporating green leaves of local plants such as Kulhlhafilaa, Maa bulhaa, and Kopeefaiy, or even substitutes like Barabo (pumpkin). Boshi mashuni, a banana flower salad with crunchy banana flower as the star ingredient, offers a delightful twist with freshly grated coconut and Maldivian spices.

Mashuni stands as the quintessential Maldivian breakfast dish, blending boiled, canned, or smoked tuna with shredded coconut, sliced onions, lime, and chilies. Ideal when accompanied by roshi and a steaming cup of strong black tea sweetened to preferences, Mashuni offers adaptability with its possible add-ons. Fathu mashuni enhances the traditional recipe with perennial leaves like Kopee Faiy, while Barabo mashuni introduces boiled pumpkin into the tuna mixture. For those craving an extra kick, chili flakes provide a zesty addition.

Kulhi Boakiba

In addition to Mashuni, there's plentiful short eats or Hedhikaa made with tuna, perfect for breaking the fast. A variety of local delicacies such as Kulhi Boakibaa (fish cake), Foni Boakiba (a flour cake), and Gulha (fish balls) are prepared for Iftar, among others. Masroshi is a popular Hedhikaa resembling flatbread but with a unique twist. It has a distinctive filling of smoked tuna fish, coconut, sautéed curry leaves, onion, and a medley of special herbs and spices. Whether sweet or savory, these carefully prepared Hedhikaa delights are enjoyed across the atolls, with subtle variations while remaining mostly consistent in flavor and preparation.

While referring to flatbread as Roshi may be considered impolite in the southern parts of the Maldives, where it is commonly known as Folhi, there is no shortage of variations for this beloved staple that pairs well with most curries or Garudiya (the clear fish broth, another staple). In Addu, the Theleli Folhi, an Addu version of Parata, is a breakfast favorite for its complementarity with Addu Reha (Addu curry) or other accompaniments.

For the main meal, Roshi and curries are essential. Special Tuna Curry, or Kandu Kukulhu, holds a special place in Maldivian cuisine. The name translates to "Sea Chicken" or "Chicken of the Sea," highlighting its significance akin to chicken curry. Different households prepare their versions of the curry, often enhanced by Addu Havaadhu, a well-loved curry paste from Addu known for its well-defined flavor.

Golha Riha is a signature dish of Laamu Atoll; savoury and spicy, it goes well with rice and roti.-- Photo: Hawwa Amaany Abdulla

Golha (Gulha) Riha, a fish ball curry, is a signature dish of Laamu Atoll. Made by rolling reef fish flesh into small balls and flavored with Dhivehi Havaadhu (Maldivian curry paste), along with aromatic herbs and spicy scotch bonnets, it is typically served with rice or roshi (chapati). Murang'a Baiy, also known as Moringa Rice, is a prized dish in Laamu Atoll. Commonly served with Rihaakuru (fish paste), onion, chili, and lemon, some prefer it with Garudhiya (fish broth), Fihunu Mas (grilled fish), and rice. The dish allows for experimentation according to personal preferences.

The fruit of the Kashikeyo (screwpine) plant is highly valued for its aromatic flavor and its role in crafting delectable desserts, a tradition cherished during Ramadan. In Baa Eydhafushi, locals craft Kashikeyo Foah by simmering the fruit into a luscious pulp, then enhancing it with sugar, jasmine water, and scraped young coconut. After further cooking and the addition of corn flour, the mixture is shaped into small balls reminiscent of Foah (areca nuts), from which it derives its name. During Ramadan Iftar in Eydhafushi, Baiypen, a pandan leaf-infused slow-cooked rice broth, is a common accompaniment that harmonizes perfectly with Maskurolhi, a dry tuna concoction featuring chilies and coconut. Variations of Baiypen are enjoyed across the atolls and its energizing effects make for a good dish for breaking fast or even for eating Haaru (the meal before the fast begins).

Baiypen and Maskurolhi.-- Photo: The Edition

In the neighboring Lhaviyani Atoll, Ramadan brings forth distinct culinary delights. One such treat, cherished in Hinnavaru, is Ringobis—a unique offering that holds a special place in the hearts of locals. Described as akin to a Mashuni-stuffed momo or the traditional Havaadhu Lee Bis, this flavorful dish is a perennial favorite on the island's dining tables. A resident highlighted its significance, noting, "The name may not have a literal meaning, but it's deeply cherished by families here—it's just for us. It's been a beloved tradition for generations."

Heading north, H.Dh Kulhudhuffushi boasts its own Ramadan specialty, Fenukekki Bis, distinct from the traditional Havaadhu Lee Bis by omitting Havaadhu or curry powder. Meanwhile, Mugu Boakibaa, a delightful variation of the classic Kulhi Boakibaa made with Mugu or Dal, delights the taste buds of locals. Huiy Mas Kaashi, a traditional favorite in the northern islands, offers a delectable twist on Mashuni infused with Gabulhi (young coconut). Sweet tooths are satisfied with Gabulhi Folhi, another beloved treat in the region among other delicacies.

Reflecting on the evolution of Ramadan cuisine, a resident of the once-inhabited Haa Alif Hathi Fushi, now residing in Malé, remarked, "Ramadan meals have become quite a fusion over the generations. Still, we hold dear to our traditional roots, savoring a taste of the past alongside innovative flavors."

In contemporary times, Ramadan observance has taken on a slightly different hue. Many individuals now opt for an early evening meal to prepare for the following day's fast, with preferences leaning towards Western-style breakfast fare like oats, eggs, yogurt, and assorted fruits and vegetables. The Ramadan breakfast spread reflects this fusion of culinary influences, where traditional staples like Mashuni share the table with Western desserts or baked chicken in lieu of the customary tuna curry.

Common dishes around modern-day Iftar tables include tasty short eats such as baked bean patties, savory warm pies filled with local ingredients like tuna or vegetables, and cakes like cheesecakes infused with tropical fruits or other flavors that have become constants in the dessert menu. The essence of traditional Ramadan and Suhoor foods persists, albeit with some adjustments, as the primary focus remains on maintaining energy and hydration.

The advent of advanced kitchen technologies and modern conveniences, including state-of-the-art refrigeration and appliances, has ushered in a shift in the culinary norms across Maldivian households. This transformation has led to a fusion of flavors and a diversification of food choices, fueled by the steady flow of imports. Maldivians now enjoy a vibrant and varied food palette, departing from the austere diet of their ancestors to embrace a more colorful and nutritionally diverse culinary experience. With Eid around the corner, which is a food festival in itself, anticipation is high for the delightful biryanis and Maldivian desserts that take center stage for the celebrations.

Share this story