Hallucinogens and Heat: A Brief Guide to Eating in the Maldives

Beaches, at least while I’m traveling solo, are somewhere near the bottom of the list of priorities.  I might head towards one for a sunset shot, to try local seafood, or to admire the terrain, but not to kick back for hours on end.

Thus, you can imagine my…imagination’s surprise when I flew to the Maldives a some years back.  I was on my way to Colombo, Sri Lanka, so why not fit in a rapidly disappearing archipelago on the way?

Beyond snorkeling between schools of tropical fish and rubbish floating by a jetty near Hulhumale’, and getting nauseous from diesel fumes from the ferries, I wasn’t sure what else to do.

Oh, right.  Let’s explore Maldivian food.

Right off the bat, you should know that fish, specifically skipjack tuna, is THE staple of the Maldives.  The canned (tinned for British English viewers) variety is more and more common, but traditionally the tuna was cured – in this case, boiled, smoked and sun-choked – into a product called ari.  Coconuts are also par for the course, which raises Maldivian food to level awesome.

Secondly, I was glad though not surprised that English was often present.  I had no idea how to say anything in Dhivehi, and the written script looked like one’s breath was trying its damnedest to communicate.

That said, here’s when I had a generally good sense of what I ordered:

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The first meal I ate in the Maldives was appropriately a tuna-centric one.  It tasted canned, and the chapati – known locally as roshi – was lukewarm at best.  What a disappointment.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the food.  I drank the water, so that’s probably where the disappointment set in.

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The server knew me well.

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Oops, more water.

Wandering around downtown Male’ on one of my empty stomachs, I sought refuge in a bustling short eats hole-in-the-wall.

What’s on the menu?  Fried things, round fried things, fried round things, and tuna.  With fried coconut.  And heavily sweetened tea.  And tuna, grilled that is.

The first plates come by.  The lighter things in the lower-left are called gulha, made with tuna, coconut and chilies, and the darker ones are kavaabu, fried with tuna, potatoes and lime.  To the right, we have riha folhi, curried tuna rolls, and in the back, unfortunately I don’t recall the names.  The yellow item that looks like a swimming turtle is NOT an egg, and the glutinous cubes behind it didn’t have much taste.  It’s safe to say that neither of those contained tuna.  Can anyone identify those snacks?

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Add the fish curry to the list of foods that made me suffer dearly.  I couldn’t speak for a few minutes because it set my mouth on fire for some time.  That the rice was boiling hot didn’t help things, nor did the spicy vegetables (including red onions, another Maldivian favorite).  Which is to say, I’d order that curry again, if only I knew the name!

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Papaya shake.  Although I often think papayas have a Bubblicious aftertaste, they are refreshing in shake-form.  No sugar, no ice, all fresh…just hope that the glass was properly cleaned.

Now it’s time to go into the “doldrums of food” category:

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You’re supposed to spit it out

This potent combination of a stimulant – the areca nut, cinnamon, cloves, and calcium hydroxide (to help with absorption) usually follows a Maldivian meal. That is, I thought it was a dessert, so down the hatch a handful went.

Another afternoon wasted.

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The warning notice should have been a red flag, but I still dared to try a thimble’s worth of khaini, ready-to-roll tobacco.  Who needs Amsterdam when the Maldives are ready to serve you; they’ve even just introduced a points system for frequent travelers, so watch out Sabena!.


Have you tried Maldivian cuisine?