Flavors and spices from the Maldives’ neighboring nations have heavily influenced traditional Maldivian cuisine, also known as Dhivehi cuisine. Over the millennia, seafarers from Sri Lanka, India, East Africa, Malaysia, and Indonesia have descended upon the far-flung Indian Ocean archipelago bringing a myriad of ingredients that have since been incorporated into Maldivian cooking.
Although the islands of the Maldives are the perfect place to sunbathe on a white-sand beach or dive amid vibrant coral reefs, the sandy soil and incessant heat are not ideal for farming, thus the only crops grown locally are sweet potatoes, coconuts, pineapples, mangoes, and papayas. Those staple foods, along with fish, make up a majority of elements in the local fare.
Major resorts have a wide variety of imported foods, but there’s usually some local flavor on the menu for the gastronomically curious. There are also countless local cafes and restaurants in the capital Malé and on other inhabited islands throughout the archipelago.
Being an island nation about 600 miles from the nearest mainland, it’s no surprise that fish is the number one staple food in Maldivian cuisine. Tuna is the star of the show, with a variety of species living beneath the country’s turquoise waters, including yellowfin tuna, skipjack tuna, and frigate tuna.
As the main staple food, tuna is prepared in myriad ways, with the most popular being sundried, cured, smoked, and cooked. It also appears in a cornucopia of local dishes, such as tuna curries, bajiya (a savory pastry), and rihaakuru (a thick brown paste), used to flavor countless Maldivian dishes.
Wahoo, scad, and mahi-mahi are other popular fish species used in local cuisine along with tuna, and are mainly served grilled or deep-fried.
Coconut palms grow on all of the nearly 1,200 islands in the Maldives and are the second-largest export after fish. They are so ubiquitous in fact, that they are the country’s national trees. Coconuts form the base of the Dhivehi diet are are used in almost every possible form by the locals. There's coconut oil for frying and milk for curries while grated, shaved, and dried coconut is used as an additive or topping to various dishes
In a typical local restaurant or tea shop, “long eats” is a large meal that would take a relatively long time to eat. Long eats generally consist of either rice or roshi (flatbread similar to Indian chapatti), along with main courses such as garudia (a fish soup mixed with lime and chilies) or mas riha (a popular fish curry).
Think of short eats as a kind of Maldivian tapas. Visit a local café or tea shop to sample a smattering of savory dishes, such as kulhi boakibaa (spicy fish cakes), gulha (spiced fish inside fried dough), or fihunu mas (pieces of fish coated in chili flakes). Short eats also come in the sweet variety and include rice pudding, bananas, and fried batter dipped in sugar.
What do you get when you mix fish and coconuts? A scrumptious fish curry called mas riha, perhaps the signature dish of the Maldives. This colorful, aromatic curry is comprised of fresh tuna, coconut milk, chilies, and peppers, and usually served with rice or flatbread. Chicken curries are also popular, as are vegetable curries made with pumpkin, eggplant, or even unripe green bananas.
Forget the cereal, a Maldivian breakfast must include tuna. Perhaps the most popular Dhivehi breakfast food is mas huni, a fishy mixture consisting of tuna, coconut, onion, and chili all blended together and served with flat bread. There’s also bis keemiyaa, a savory deep-fried pastry filled with tuna, cabbage, and a boiled egg.
This thick, brown fish paste is a staple in every Maldivian kitchen. Ranging from light to dark brown, the paste is a byproduct of processing tuna. After tuna has been cooked in salted water and then removed, what’s left in the pot are scraps of fish that fell off during the boiling process. After the water evaporates, all that’s left is a gooey substance that is then ground into a thick brown paste. It’s often consumed plain with rice or flatbread, or can be used in a variety of other dishes such as thelluli rihaakuru, which uses onions, curry leaves, and chilies.
Maldivian street food is a major culinary draw for tourists, as well as a daily mainstay for locals. Mainly found in the labyrinthine lanes of Malé, street food vendors create mouthwatering dishes from pop-up eateries on small carts and the backs of motorbikes. A few treats to try include kavaabu (deep-fried bites of rice, coconut, tuna, lentils, and spices), bajiya (fish and coconut-stuffed sweet pastry), and theluli mas (fish fried with chili and garlic).
The Maldives is an Islamic nation, meaning alcohol is not sold outside of the main tourist resorts. Locals have developed a variety of beverage alternatives such as raa, a liquid tapped from palm trees. Raa is sometimes fermented and made into a toddy, or sai, a black tea served any time of day, but often for haveeru sai, which is similar to a British afternoon tea and served with short eats like gulha and bajiya.
Betel nuts, also known as areca nuts, are the seed of the areca palm tree, and chewing these red seeds is a popular pastime in many parts of Asia and the Pacific. The drug-like seeds which stain the teeth a reddish brown color are known for releasing adrenaline, and a feeling of euphoria and well-being, and it’s thought that 10 to 20 percent of the world’s population indulges in this habit. Betel nuts are mainly chewed after a meal, and are consumed with cloves and lime paste wrapped in leaves from the areca palm.