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A hundred ways to say tuna in Maldives

The Dhivehi cuisine of Maldives is dominated by tuna, which is cooked in a myriad forms—as a curry, sambol, broth, cake or even a ketchup

Chefs from Maldives preparing kandu kukulhu, or tuna curry, at the World Heritage Cuisine Summit and Food Festival 2018. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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They say that the indigenous Inuit people of northern Canada and Alaska have a neat cache of over a hundred words and adjectives for snow. Having just come back from a trip to the archipelago in the Indian Ocean that makes up The Maldives, it’s safe to say that its inhabitants could probably beat the Inuit at their game. Only this time, their numerous names are not for snow but for the islands' favourite—tuna.

If raagondi is what they call frigate tuna, then the ubiquitous yellowfin species is bestowed with the rather mellifluous kanneli. Skipjack tuna, on the other hand, has not one, but two names—kandumas and goda. This, I’m told, is according to the season it is caught in.

To complicate things even further, each variety of tuna takes on a different name according to the way it is prepared and served. From a curry called riha to a version of a sambol, its appellations are many, but each one is delicious and uniquely Maldivian.

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What the Americans rather callously call “chicken of the sea”, thanks to its ubiquity, the Maldivians prefer to venerate and exalt to high culinary heaven. Here, tuna can be cooked fresh into a soul-satisfying mas riha with turmeric, cumin, rampa (pandanus) and kurumba (coconut). Another popular fresh tuna dish of the local Dhivehi cuisine is the very simple, yet flavourful, garudhiya broth. In this recipe, chunks of fresh tuna are boiled with onions and chilli and served with roshi (a roomali roti-like flatbread) and steamed taro along with a range of condiments.

A culinary highlight is made with dried tuna flakes, chilli and onion sambol called masmirus. Or take a thick brown paste known as rihaakuru that features tuna in its preserved state. This one is known locally as the Maldivian ketchup.

In its smoked avatar, tuna finds itself in several delicious ‘short-eat’ snacks called hedikaa in the Dhivehi language. These take the form of bajiya (the local version of our samosa), kulhi bōkiba, which is an interesting savoury tuna and coconut cake, or the stuffed bread called masroshi. I try a bit of each as I make my way down the meandering alleyways of the island of Malé—the densely populated capital of the country.

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It’s here, at the spotlessly clean fish market, that I learn that tuna is so dominant that other fish like mackerel and stingray are not even considered food. The latter, in fact, is only prized for its skin which is used to make handbags and wallets for export.

Just like tuna dominates most things savoury, an entire range of Dhivehi desserts pivots around the coconut. In Malé, at the fresh produce market adjacent to the fish market, I pick up a variety of rather expensive sweet treats to take back home as edible souvenirs.

Ranging in price from USD 5-10 ( 400-800) a packet, I load up on tongue twisters like the cigar-shaped huvadhoo bon’di, which are young coconut and treacle candies wrapped in dried banana leaves. Others like the delicious sea almond, butter and coconut milk kanamadhu cake and the Maldivian version of bread pudding with coconut molasses called paan boakibaa are purchased only after a generous sampling offered by the kind stall owners.

A short 20-minute speed boat ride from Malé and I’m back at the brand new Hilton Maldives Amingiri Resort and Spa in the North Malé Atoll. I sign up for an hour-long cookery class at the resort’s Habitat restaurant. Here, Chef Mufeed—a local Maldivian who runs the resort’s staff canteen—tells me more about the seafood-dominant cuisine. I’m taught to put together a meal of roshi, miruhulee boava octopus curry, and the bambukeyo (breadfruit)-based all-vegetarian curry called tharukaaree riha. But for me, the highlight has got to be the very easy kopee fai mashuni salad.

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A mashuni, I’m told, is a traditional Maldivian breakfast item made from boiled or tinned tuna mixed with coconut, red onions, and chilli. But the one I’m making uses an indigenous Maldivian leafy green called kopee fai. A cross between kale and colocasia leaves, the peppery taste of the leaf and its crunchy texture elevate the simple tuna salad to a new gastronomic high. It leaves me searching for my very own contribution to the many adjectives for the hallowed tuna.

Kopee Fai Mashuni Salad

(Courtesy: Chef Mufeed, Hilton Maldives Amingiri Resort and Spa)

Ingredients

55 gm kopee fai leaves finely chopped

35 gm raw red onion slices

1 tin tuna chunks in oil

Chopped red chilli to taste

Lime juice

35 gm fresh grated coconut

10 gm crispy fried onion (optional)

5 gm coriander leaves

3 gm salt

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Note: Kopee fai leaves can be substituted with the same quantity of colocasia leaves, which have been first lightly blanched in water and to which a little tamarind has been added. You can leave out tuna for an equally delicious all-vegetarian version of the salad

Method:

Thoroughly mix the kopee fai/colocasia leaves, grated coconut, tuna, onion, and chilli in a bowl. Add lime juice and salt. Garnish with fried onion and coriander leaves. Serve at room temperature as a side dish with curry and roshi or use as a stuffing for either masroshi or a sandwich with regular sliced bread.

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