With visitors to the Maldives looking for more immersive experiences, Stuart Forster looks at how to experience Maldivian cuisine and embrace the country’s culture and traditions
The Maldives’ island resorts are renowned as luxurious tropical playgrounds operated by multinational brands. Amid their international appeal they present opportunities for visitors to experience Maldivian cuisine and, along with local islands, chances to embrace aspects of the country’s culture and traditions.
Unsurprisingly for a nation comprised of more than 1,000 islands in the Indian Ocean, fish figures prominently in the traditional Maldivian diet. After tourism, fishing – which is practiced sustainably – is the country’s second largest industry and taking to the water a traditional part of life.
All of the resorts, guesthouses and liveaboards offer the chance to go fishing. The Bandos Maldives, a resort in the North Malé Atoll, has a night fishing experience. Guests board a traditional wood-built fishing boat shortly before sunset and chug out to sea. After cutting the vessel’s engine, the crew demonstrates how Maldivian fisherfolk cast and haul in reels by hand. Lamps are lit as night falls and guests tend lines while the boat bobs gently on the ocean surface in the hope of landing catches such as red snapper and jackfish.
After returning to the resort, chefs at the waterfront Sea Breeze restaurant demonstrate how to baste the fish and grill them over charcoal. Participants then sit and sample the succulent freshly caught fish.
Coconuts also play a major role in Maldivian cuisine. Palm trees rustling by beachfronts bear one of the islands’ traditional staples. Their water is drunk, the flesh is consumed in multiple ways and they are pressed for oil. Nothing is wasted as fibres from dried hulls woven into coir ropes often used decoratively and to create souvenirs. For nearly 1,000 years the tree trunks have been fashioned into boduberu drums, whose rhythmical beat is the core of traditional Maldivian music.
Made with grated coconut, tuna, chopped onion, lime juice and chili, the traditional breakfast dish of mas huni is widely served, typically with a flatbread known as roshi. Those breads and the generous use of aromatic spices in Maldivian cuisine reflect culinary influences from Sri Lanka and southern India. Breadfruit, taro and sweet potatoes have long been among the staples on the Maldives and several of the island resorts grow fruit, vegetables and herbs in their carefully irrigated kitchen gardens, reducing reliance on import fresh ingredients.
Increasingly, holidaymakers are seeking immersive experiences and opportunities to learn about aspects of places that they visit. Many resorts offer cookery classes during which chefs discuss the Maldives’ culinary heritage and demonstrate how to prepare a selection of the country’s best loved dishes. Lessons are offered both as group experiences and private sessions. Conducted at a relaxed pace, cooking classes typically conclude with a beachfront meal featuring the sessions’ culinary creations. They mean guests can leave with recipes to try at home.
At Spice Spoons on the Antara Veli Maldives Resort in the South Malé Atoll the private cooking class presents opportunities to prepare a menu featuring the likes of subtly spiced Maldivian potato and crab cakes, and a main course of yellowfin tuna curry with a creamy coconut sauce. Reflecting growing demand for vegetable-based cuisine, Mirihi Island Resort in the South Ari Atoll offers vegan cooking classes that segue into lunch or dinner. Guests have opportunities to learn how to prepare the likes of banbukeyo riha (breadfruit curry), baraboa satani (pumpkin salad) and a banana-based dessert.
Cookery classes are also an option at many guesthouses on the 200 islands inhabited by Maldivians. Known as ‘local islands’ – as a way of differentiating from the resorts and private islands where the majority of international holidaymakers stay – Guraidhoo, Hulhumale and Maafushi are among the islands offering accommodation. Most rooms fall within the budget price bracket, opening the Maldives to travellers beyond its established upscale client base.
It’s common for local islands to have a demarcated ‘bikini beach’ where visiting holidaymakers can bathe wearing swimwear. Elsewhere on the islands, visitors are expected to respect local customs and dress modestly, covering up shoulders and thighs. Public displays of affection may cause embarrassment and consumption of alcohol is prohibited.
The local islands opened to international visitors in 2009 and have grown in popularity in recent years, largely because of the value for money that they offer. Amicable interactions between Maldivians and holidaymakers continue a way of building mutual understanding. It’s by no means uncommon for locals to invite visitors to dine in their homes. That may me an opportunity to taste garudiya, a fish soup typical of the Maldives, a widely served dish usually accompanied by rice.
Day visits to local islands are also an option. In addition to excursions from resorts, ferries and speedboats operate from Malé to the likes of Huraa Island, where snorkelling counts among the menu of water-based activities offered to visitors. Simply taking a stroll, popping into local shops and pausing at a café offer insights into everyday life.
Local flavours and experiences count among ways of making lasting memories of holidays in the Maldives.