Taste the Maldives: A chef's guide to Maldivian cuisine
The head chef of the Maldives' only fine dining restaurant, Ba’theli, guides us through the country's culinary heritage inspired by its past as a trading post
Maldivian cuisine is rich in both heritage and flavour, drawing on influences from the famous Maldivian spice route that began over 5,000 years ago.
Becoming a hotbed of culinary activity, the Maldives was a key port of call for traders sailing from Indonesia and India to Arabia with cargoes of cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, cloves, ginger and pepper.
Here, Maldivians traded their own goods for spices. Cargo boats sailed throughout the archipelago with these items of trade, spreading the word of their cuisine.
Inspired by the local culture and its wanderlust-rich history, the Milaidhoo Maldives hotel is home to the Ba’theli Lounge and Restaurant and, notably, the only Maldivian fine dining restaurant in the country.
"The Maldives was a key port of call for traders sailing from Indonesia and India to Arabia"
Heritage and respect for its locality and produce is key here.
Hop aboard the boat-shaped restaurant where chef Kenneth Tichaona Gundu serves up an authentic menu of epicurean delights that showcase the old spice routes, locally sourced ingredients and dishes that mix the classic and the contemporary.
Guests dine on the deck of the restaurant or inside, where you can watch the sealife below thanks to the glass flooring in true Maldivian style.
Chef Kenneth tells us more about the local history and his love of the cuisine.
What is at the heart of Maldivian cuisine?
Rice is a universal staple and weaves its way into the fabric of Maldivian cuisine. It serves as a canvas upon which delectable dishes like the famed garudhiya (Maldivian fish soup) come to life.
Similarly coconut, a timeless treasure, graces Maldivian kitchens in a multitude of forms, from milk and oil to flakes, and its versatile presence adds a creaminess to the array of curries and dishes that define Maldivian dining.
Spices like chilli, turmeric, ginger, garlic, cumin, and cardamom of course play a pivotal role in Maldivian gastronomy. These fresh flavours often deliver a delightful kick to dishes which are often said to be different from Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine, whilst still having similarities.
"Coconut, a timeless treasure, graces Maldivian kitchens in a multitude of forms"
Maldivian dining brings forth a mixture of curry and gravy dishes, where seafood, chicken, or beef harmoniously blend with a symphony of spices and the rich embrace of coconut milk.
This blend of spices is often labelled as a traditional Maldivian curry powder. During our cooking classes, the chefs at Ba’theli explain how this powder can be made at home too.
The secret behind one special Maldivian flavour, rihaakuru, a thick fish paste, infuses dishes with depth and richness, adding that extra layer of deliciousness.
Rihaakuru is made by gently boiling a flavoured fish soup for a long duration and is often described as a very salty and strong-tasting dish.
What's your first memory of Maldivian food?
The Maldives was the first country in Asia I visited, and it was a significant game changer in terms of food.
Coming from Southern Africa, I was accustomed to Durban curries, which involved adding chutney and tomato paste. However, when I discovered Maldivian curry, my entire perspective on curry was transformed.
Which are your favourite dishes to cook and eat?
Mashuni, without a doubt, is my all-time favourite Maldivian dish which I love eating and preparing—it’s a coconut and tuna salad. We serve it at our restaurant, Ba'theli.
It boasts a refreshing, tangy flavour, combining the delightful crunch of coconut with tuna and kopi leaves. It's a simple yet understated dish that I truly adore.
Tell us about Ba’theli's concept?
Ba'theli is one of the few fine-dining restaurants that encourage its diners to come barefoot and we’re proud that it is the only Maldivian fine dining restaurant in the Maldives.
Its story began over 5,000 years ago when the Maldives became a stopping point for traders sailing from Indonesia and India to Arabia with cargoes of cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, cloves, ginger and pepper.
"Locally made cargo boats, called ba'theli, carried these goods throughout the archipelago"
The Maldivians bartered coconuts, sun-dried fish, cordage and sails woven from coconut fibre, and cowrie shells (which became currency) for spice, rice, ceramics and silks.
Locally made cargo boats, called ba'theli, carried these goods throughout the archipelago, spreading knowledge about different lands, their customs and tastes, and creating the distinct flavours of the Maldivian cuisine.
At Ba'theli, this captivating tale continues as our award-winning chefs craft exquisite gourmet creations, meticulously combining the finest ingredients and harmonising herbs and spices to elevate natural flavours.
What dishes can be expected?
Upon arrival at Milaidhoo, guests are immediately captivated by the presence of Ba'theli, designed in the shape of three enchanting traditional wooden boats floating in the lagoon.
The first boat serves as the lounge and sunset bar, offering a selection of island-inspired cocktails infused with local ingredients.
The second boat houses the kitchen, where culinary magic unfolds, and the third boat transforms into the restaurant, where diners can savour delectable dishes inspired its heritage under the light of a thousand stars and billowing sails.
For an unforgettable experience, guests may choose to dine on the restaurant’s deck, where the celestial night sky sets the stage for our team of expert chefs to curate an array of island-influenced and locally sourced delicacies.
"Ba’theli is designed in the shape of three enchanting traditional wooden boats floating in the lagoon"
Guests can begin their culinary journey at the lounge and sunset bar, try one of our signature Ba’theli cocktails, like the refreshing "Parrot Fashion" crafted from locally sourced ingredients, and canapes while taking in the sunset.
At the restaurant, guests are presented with three distinctive dining options.
The Maldivian heritage degustation menu takes centre stage, presenting a five-course tasting journey that pays homage to the rich cultural heritage of the Maldives. This degustation menu offers a contemporary Maldivian style, starting with a chef’s tasting gift which is carefully selected each evening.
Following this, the à la carte section showcases a fusion of traditional Maldivian delicacies prepared with a modern twist, featuring mezze, soups and traditional salads.
Lastly, the Spice Route section of the menu offers an array of main course dishes such as Indonesian beef rendang, Indian tikka biryani and Nyama Choma from South Africa, all prepared with a touch of local Maldivian flair.
How has the cuisine evolved?
In today’s era, Maldivian culinary traditions have remained largely unchanged, highlighting the enduring authenticity and originality of its ingredients and cooking methods.
The formation of Maldivian cuisine can be attributed to diverse factors, including the historical influence of the spice route, which facilitated the trade of various commodities, spices and ingredients.
Additionally, the abundant presence of tuna in the Maldives has also played a significant role in shaping Maldivian cuisine.
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