Maldivians: Tuna in the Veins
Exploring | Rasdu Atoll, Maldives
The apprentice chef
Ajit, a friend of Ahusan, works as an apprentice chef in the Island’s Tourist Resort and looks younger than his age. He is originally from India, is his middle 30´s and –like so many other migrant workers– not so long on the island, but long enough to visit in his spare time many of the small restaurants of Male –the capital of the Maldives–and get an overview of the authentic local food.
The traditional cuisine of the Maldives -says Ajit- was very simple and consisted mostly of all derivates of coconut and tuna. The Islands are quite close to South India and Sri Lanka coasts –about 350 km north from here– so maldivians have had over the centuries rice, flour and many other spices. This is why we find here so many curry dishes, but they are milder as the indian ones because maldivians use much more coconut milk. We also find like in India Naan, Papadum, Roti and Chapati. Eastern flavors are also present due to the contact to Arab traders, who stopped here on the way through to Asia and brought with them religion – the Maldives used to be Hindu and Buddhist but they embraced Islam in 1153– so alcohol and pork meat is banned from the local cuisine. Vegetables and tubers are also not very present due to lack of farming land on the islands. Agriculture is simply not profitable, so all greens must be mostly imported. Typical dishes are Mas Huni, shredded smoked fish with grated coconuts and onions, which is the most common Maldivian breakfast, or Garudiya , a clear Tuna fish broth, or Mas Riha, a delicious Curry with Tuna, onions, chili, fennel, garlic, sometimes lime juice and –see the the arabian influence– cumin.
"Vegetables and tubers are also not very present due to lack of farming land on the islands. Agriculture is simply not profitable, so all greens must be mostly imported."
Maldivians love tuna
Do they only eat Tuna? They are surrounded by the sea. What about other fish species? did I ask Ajit. „Maldivians love Tuna –continues Ajit–. Their favourite is Skipjack and Yellowfin Tuna, either dried or fresh, raw, boiled, grilled or as soup. In ancient times Maldivians did not use to eat fish from the reef for some social reason –as far as I know because other would make fun of them, but that has changed nowadays as they are not that isolated and see how foreigners eat other fish species too. What they still do not understand is why tourist pay such amounts of money for a Lobster that –in their opinion– does not have any taste at all. I have to say, that I agree, because warm water lobsters that are caught here do not have the same taste as the much more delicate cold water lobsters. If maldivians could choose tuna from the can or Lobster I´m sure they will go for canned tuna.
"There is also something quite curious also related to tuna: It´s called Rihaakuru"
There is also something quite curious also related to tuna: It´s called Rihaakuru, a tuna-based thick paste which is the result of hours of cooking tuna in water and salt. This extract, present in almost every household in the Maldives, is a seasoning that can be use used as a flavouring for many dishes. It is the so called "Bovril oft the Maldives". Traders exported Rihaakuru to countries as far as China over centuries, but the histamine concentration of Rihaakuru has been described as being at levels that are regarded as a risk to human health. Only Maldivians are mostly inmume.
Mas Huni, the Maldivian Breakfast
1 cup freshly grated coconut
500g boiled fresh tuna or 2 cans tuna packed in water, drained and flaked
2 Indian green chiles, stemmed and minced
1 small red onion, minced
4 Curry leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh chapati, for serving
How to prepare:
Combine coconut, tuna, chiles, onion, salt and pepper in a bowl. Serve with chapati.
© Text, Artwork and Photography by Fred Mel / Eatnologist