Your culinary experience in Maldives could be, depending on your resort, anything from haute cuisine ordered from a menu you’ve discussed with the chef in advance, to bangers and mash at the all-you-can-eat buffet in the communal dining room. What it’s unlikely to be in either case is particularly Maldivian, given the disconnection of resorts from local life. However, anyone staying in Male or on an inhabited island should take advantage of this opportunity to try real Maldivian food.
Maldives has some absolutely superb eating options at its better resorts. Budget resorts and restaurants on inhabited islands tend to be rather less exciting, but quality does exist.
- Restaurants Every Maldivian resort has at least one restaurant, and better ones have as many as six or more.
- Guesthouses Nearly all guesthouses have restaurants and serve meals to their guests. They generally welcome nonguests as well.
- Cafes & Teashops These simple local eateries serve up cheap and delicious hedhikaa ('short eats' or snacks) and are the best place to try local dishes and interact with Maldivians.
Staples & Specialities
Essentially all that grows in Maldives are coconuts, yams, mangoes, papayas and pineapples; the only other locally occurring products are fish and seafood, which explains the historical simplicity of Maldivian cuisine. However, as trade with the Indian subcontinent, Africa, Arabia and the Far East have always brought other, more exciting influences, the result is far less bland than it could be.
The Indian influence is clear in local cuisine above all; Maldivian food is often hot and spicy. If you’re going to eat local food, prepare your palate for spicy fish curry, fish soup, fish patties and variations thereof. A favourite Maldivian breakfast is mas huni, a healthy mixture of tuna, onion, coconut and chilli, eaten cold with roshi (unleavened bread, like an Indian chapati) and tea.
'Maldive fish', is a big export of Maldives, a tuna product that is cured on the islands and often sold abroad, where it is widely used as a supporting ingredient in Sri Lankan cooking. It is also used as the principal ingredient of several Maldivian dishes such as mas huni.
For snacks and light meals, Maldivians like hedhikaa, a selection of finger foods. In homes the hedhikaa are placed on the table and everyone helps themselves. In teashops this is called ‘short eats’ – a choice of things like fihunu mas (fish pieces with chilli coating), gulha (fried dough balls filled with fish and spices), keemia (fried fish rolls in batter) and kuli boakiba (spicy fish cakes). Sweets include little bowls of bondi bai (rice pudding), tiny bananas and zileybee (coloured coils of sugared, fried batter). Generally, anything small and brown will be savoury and contain fish, and anything light or brightly coloured will be sweet.
A main meal will include rice or roshi or both, plus soups, curries, vegetables, pickles and spicy sauces. In a teashop, a substantial meal with rice and roshi is called ‘long eats’. The most typical dish is garudia, a soup made from dried and smoked fish, often eaten with rice, lime and chilli. The soup is poured over rice, mixed up by hand and eaten with the fingers. Another common meal is mas riha, a fish curry eaten with rice or roshi – the roshi is torn into strips, mixed on the plate with the curry and condiments, and eaten with the fingers. A cup of tea accompanies the meal, and is usually drunk black and sweet, sometimes with frothy powdered milk.
The Maldivian equivalent of the after-dinner mint is the areca or betel nut, chewed after a meal or snack. The little oval nuts are sliced into thin sections, some cloves and lime paste are added, the whole lot is wrapped in an areca leaf, and the wad is chewed whole. It’s definitely an acquired taste, and the kind of thing that few foreigners try more than once!
Where to Eat
In budget resorts you won’t usually have any choice about where to eat, as most cheaper resorts have just one restaurant. Midrange places typically have two or more to afford some variety, and top-end resorts often boast three or more. Buffets (nearly always for breakfast, sometimes for lunch and dinner too) allow for lots of different cuisines and plenty of choice. À la carte dining is more popular for lunch and dinner, and is nearly always the case in finer establishments.
In Male, where there’s a much broader choice, the most obvious place for authentic Maldivian ‘short eats’ is in a teashop. In recent years traditional teashops (confusingly sometimes also called ‘hotels’) have modernised so that they look less forbidding and are now more pleasant places at which to eat, with air-con and an attempt at interior decoration. Larger towns elsewhere will also have teashops and these are a great way to sample real Maldivian food.
If you’re staying on a smaller inhabited island though, guesthouses will be where you eat for the most part, as so few islands have sufficient restaurants for you to eat comfortably elsewhere. Even in places where independent travel is now well established, such as Maafushi, eating options, while common, are rarely particularly good, with all-you-can-eat buffets being the norm.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Vegetarians will have no problem in resorts (although at cheaper resorts where there may be a set meal rather than a buffet spread, veggies will often be stuck with an unimaginative pasta dish or a ratatouille). In general, resorts are well prepared for all types of diet, and in better resorts the chef may cook you a dish by request if what’s on offer isn’t appealing. Vegans will find Maldives quite a challenge, though soy milk is on offer in most resorts and the buffet allows each diner to pick and mix. On inhabited islands things won’t be so easy – fish and seafood dominate menus in the islands, so those who don’t eat fish will have trouble. However, as vegan lifestyles become more and more normal, all high-end resorts will have choices suitable for plant-fuelled lifestyles.
Eating with Kids
In resorts menus sometimes have kids’ sections, giving youngsters a choice of slightly less sophisticated foods, ranging from spaghetti to fish fingers and chicken nuggets. Even if there’s nothing dedicated to the kids’ tastes, resort buffets are usually diverse enough to cater to even the fussiest eaters. However, it’s always best to check what resorts offer before booking a holiday with young kids. We’ve heard complaints from travellers about the poor availability of child-suitable foods even at the very best resorts. Note that baby-food products are not on sale in resorts, so bring whatever you will need for the trip.
Habits & Customs
There’s not a huge amount of etiquette to worry about if you eat in Male or resorts. If you’re lucky enough to be entertained in a local house you should obey some basic rules. That said, Maldivians are very relaxed and as long as you show respect and enjoyment, they’ll be glad to have you eating with them.
When going to eat, wait to be shown where to sit and wait for the kateeb (island chief) or the male head of the household to sit down before you do. Take a little of everything offered and do so only with your right hand, as the left hand is considered unclean by Muslims. Do ask for cutlery if you find it hard to roll your food into little balls like the Maldivians do; this is quite normal for foreigners.
Travel Your Tastebuds
If you feel like trying something both exotic and dear to Maldivian people, go for miruhulee boava (octopus tentacles). This is not commonly found in resorts or in Male, but is often prepared in the atolls as a speciality should you be lucky enough to visit an inhabited island. The tentacles are stripped and cleaned, then braised in a sauce of curry leaves, cloves, garlic, chilli, onion, pepper and coconut oil – delicious.
Maldivians love their coffee. You can get very good espresso, latte or cappuccino anywhere in Male, as well as at all but the most budget resorts and guesthouses.