Other fish in the sea? Not for tuna-mad Maldivians

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 May, 2014, 10:11am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 May, 2014, 6:38pm

Fish is on everyone's mind in the Maldives. The tropical island nation is abundant in marine life, and home to thousands of species.

Encountering these beauties face-to-face, either diving or dining, is an essential part of the Maldivian experience. But there is one species that rules this archipelago: tuna. Fishermen routinely net skipjack, yellowfin, little tunny and frigate tuna, so islanders and visitors alike encounter this protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

At The Sun Siyam Iru Fushi, Maldives in the Noonu Atoll, in the north of the archipelago, almost all its 11 food and beverage venues feature the fish. Tuna is given the Mediterranean treatment at The Trio, a restaurant perched on a lagoon.

Yellowfin tuna is barbecued at the beachfront Islander's Grill (where a giant pond accommodates live locally caught lobsters, crabs and reef fishes), while raw seafood is featured in the pan-Asian menu at Bamboo restaurant.

Despite the Maldives being a tuna nation, few hotels and resorts serve the fish as sushi or sashimi as consuming uncooked seafood is not part of the local culture.

That doesn't appear to limit the creativity of islanders when it comes to cooking fish.

The Friday Maldivian buffet at The Sun Siyam Iru Fushi's buffet restaurant, Iru, is a good primer to native cooking.

More than half of the spread is dedicated to tuna: havaadhuly bis (boiled tuna patties cloaked in a tomato sauce), kavaabu (fried tuna patties), and in the classic mas huni salad of tuna flakes tangled in grated coconut, citrus and peppers.

Curries, too, are often defined by the fish: kandu kukulhu has finger-sized tuna rolls simmered in mild coconut-base; the spicier kulhi mas has the cubed fish in a dry, sweet crimson red curry, courtesy of a preparation of dried and fresh chillies.

The sweetness that exudes from these dishes differentiates Maldivian curries from their counterparts in India and Sri Lanka.

At a cooking class hosted by the hotel, chef Abdullah Nashid explains that those regional differences are as crystal clear as the waters in the Maldives.

"Indians use a lot of nuts and spices such as coriander, but we don't. Instead we use lots of curry leaves and rampa leaves."

Rampa is the local term for pandan (screwpine leaf), which he says is much-beloved among Maldivians, who are as generous with it as Italians are with basil, tarragon and thyme.

Differences with Sri Lankan cooking are not so pronounced; the curries are based on coconut instead of the dairy products typically used in northern India.

Nashid says cream tends to neutralise the spices, but since Maldivians employ coconut milk (the area is abundant with these trees) the chilli flavours are more pronounced in curries.

At the same time, the sweetness from the fruit and herbs such as pandan soften those robust edges.

Such flavours are found in other Maldivian favourites, such as the country's popular snack, bajiya, akin to a tuna samosa, served with ketchup.

"On the local islands, everyone has this almost every day at around 4pm with a cup of tea," says Nashid.

A bite brings a tuna filling enriched with sugar, spices and pandan. Again, one learns the remarkable ways to appreciate tuna in the Maldives.