If you look at any regional cuisine you will find influences from near and far. War, politics, the migration of peoples have all led to this mixing of foods and cookery. Nor are complaints about the culinary influence of those strangers anything new. After Alexander conquered the known universe the world, naturally enough, became a melting pot cuisines. "Greek" food now included foodstuffs and cooking techniques from an area stretching from Afghanistan , India, and Persia, to Egypt and more deeply into Africa. One contemporary food critic wrote negatively about these foreign influences. "Do you see what things have come to?" he complained. "Bread, garlic, cheese, maza---those are healthy foods, but not these salted fish, these lamb chops sprinkled with spices, these sweet confections, and these corrupting pot roasts."
While found everywhere, if you look deeply enough, the cross-cultural nature of food is perhaps most apparent on the larger islands of the Mediterranean Basin. Malta, in particular, represents an amazing group of culinary influences. Have a meal on this independent nation isle and you can't quite figure it out. It's sort of Italian, but not quite. Nor quite Turkish. Nor Arabic. It's not Spanish. Not North African. Most assuredly not French.
Rather it's an amalgamation of them all, a conglomeration, a fusion, if you will, that results in a little known, but unique ethnic cuisine.
It's also a cuisine that's fast disappearing from the public scene, thanks to the latest invasion of a dominant culture---affluent tourists. "It is an unfortunate paradox," says Peter Toledo in his introduction to Pipa Mattei's "25 Years In A Maltese Kitchen," "that despite our slow but steady economic development....in great part due to the hundreds of thousands of tourists that invade our shores, the quality and characteristics of our food have been practically obliterated."
Pippa Mattei has dedicated herself to reversing that trend. "Maltese cuisine is a great heritage and needs to be preserved and passed down from generation to generation, she says.
Mattei---who started her married life unable to cook---accidentally founded a home-based food-service company. This in turn led to cooking demonstrations and, eventually, formal classes---all based around the idea of using fresh Mediterranean ingredients.
"25 Years in A Maltese Kitchen" is the culmination of that work. It was also the first such book of its kind. "There was a void," says Miranda Publishers' Tony Aquillina, in a Times of Malta interview. "Local cuisine was confined mainly to small paperbacks, aimed mostly at tourists." The result is a hardback, four-color cookery book containing 100 of Mattei's favorite local recipes.
To be fair, not all of them are traditional. Some have been passed down, one generation to the next. Some are Mattei's own creations. And some, such as the scrumptious Chicken Breasts San Marco, were developed by professionals in this case, her cousin Michael Pullicino when he had a restaurant in Mdina.
What marks them all is a style that represents the way Maltese cookery developed. Most of the recipes, for instance, clearly show the influences of the successive cultures that dominated the island. In her own Seafood Risotto, for instance, you can clearly see Italian, North African, and even Lebanese influences.
If there's one thing that truly marks traditional Maltese cookery it's the emphasis on one-pot meals. Mattei certainly maintains that tradition, with dishes such as her Maltese Pork Stew---a slow-cooked compendium of cabbage, potatoes, onions, Maltese sausages and pork chops, all prepared and served at table.
Miranda normally produces coffee-table books, and brought that publishing view to 25 years. The book is slightly oversized, but is still a rational size for being used in the kitchen. And the recipes are lavishly illustrated by Kurt Arrigo's spectacular photos. But Arrigo has arranged the food the way it would look in a normal kitchen, rather than taking the stylistic, studio-shot approach. To my mind that makes them much more useful.
"25 Years In A Maltese Kitchen" isn't for everyone. But for the home cook seeking new horizons, or the professional seeking inspiration from a unique ethnic cuisine, it's a worthy addition to the bookshelf.