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The cuisine of the Maldives may not be widely known outside the islands and even within the Maldives there is only one restaurant where gourmet Maldivian dishes can be enjoyed.
That is at Ba’theli by the Reef at Milaidhoo, the first and only Maldivian gourmet restaurant. Not only does it feature epicurean dishes of inspired island cuisine from the Maldivian Spice Route, Ba’theli is also unique as it has been created in three replicas of the ancient ba’theli sailing vessels.
The story began long before tourists discovered the Maldives. It was during the first millennium when the Maldives became a key port of call for traders sailing from Indonesia and India to Arabia with cargoes of cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, cloves, ginger and pepper. 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, ba’theli, sailed throughout the archipelago with these goods, spreading knowledge about different lands, their customs and cuisine.
The story continues on board the restaurant at Milaidhoo as the island’s chefs create dishes of finesse based on the ingredients sourced from the Spice Route of the past, blending herbs and spices to enhance natural flavours. Examples of the highlights of Maldivian cuisine are featured in the Ba’theli Maldivian Heritage Degustation Menu. This includes Havaadhuli Mas – island-spiced Maldivian yellow fin tuna loin seared medium rare, kullha fila (local mustard leaf plant) and copra essence. Moodhumas Kiru Garudhiya – Fresh coconut milk poached fish and shellfish, flavoured with island spices and curry leaf ocean foam. There are also dishes of Maldivian lobster curry, Northern archipelago slow braised Lamb curry, Southern Maldivian chicken curry, pumpkin and local leaf salad served with traditional steamed rice, chapatti and condiments.
The essential ingredients for an authentic Maldivian recipe, like a curry or gravy-based dish, are the five spices of cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and coriander. They can be used all together or at least one in a dish – with curry leaves. The curry leaf is for Maldivian cuisine what basil is for Italian cuisine. It is everywhere; there is hardly a Maldivian dish without curry leaves. As well as the spices and leaves, there is another ingredient: fresh coconut.
In Maldivian cuisine, the side dishes are rice, sweet potato, yam or breadfruit. The last three are grown in the Maldives and have always been part of Maldivian cuisine. Rice was introduced later by traders on the Spice Route. Maldivian cuisine has fish, usually tuna, as its inspiration. Combined with onions, chillies, grated coconut and lime juice, fish served with rice forms the basic diet. The tuna can be freshly cooked, boiled, smoked and sun dried (called hikimas) or just smoked (called valhoamas).
A dinner on board Ba’theli is like a voyage through the cuisine of the Maldives, a meaningful experience and memorable moment of staying at Milahidhoo.