Malta Diary Fried rabbit ‘n chips – Malta’s traditional dish speciality
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It was in England, near Brighton to be more precise. I was dining out at a restaurant with a group of friends and some of their friends who I had never met before. Food was on the table and food was under discussion when I casually mentioned that our traditional dish in Malta is fried rabbit and chips.
There was a stunned silence for a few seconds. Then, one of the lady friend of friends said “You eat bunny rabbits in Malta? Oh, how could you … that’s simply awful”. I looked around their plates crammed with roast lamb, pork chops, veal scallops and beef steaks.
“Yes we do”, I replied matter-of-factly as she gave me a look as if I was the Commandant of Auschwitz or Treblinka. “It’s my favourite dish and I love it”.
Tender rabbit flesh is versatile and can be fried, stewed, made into a sauce for spaghetti and may also be minced and used in ‘burgers, kebabs and pie filling.
My two favourites are the fried style and as a pasta sauce. It is also relatively easy to cook too.
I buy it chopped into manageable pieces from the butcher – no butcher in Malta can class themselves a butcher unless they sell rabbit – and then separate the head and body parts from the liver, heart and lungs and flaps to be used in preparing a sauce.
The cooking styles are various and optional. The chopped parts and divided head I marinate in a wine (I use white but red is just as good), a smattering of fresh lemon juice and a generous sprinkling of pepper and salt. A few slices of finely chopped lemon rind also enhance the flavour.
Marinating need not be lengthy because the flesh soon absorbs the flavours.
Meanwhile I set aside a dish and gently fry a finely chopped onion in oil, later adding a little wine, some more lemon juice or rind, pepper and salt, leaving all to simmer gently.
I fry in a wok, finding that better than a simple frying pan because it fries better and gives more flavour.
Garlic is an essential ingredient (some of my Brit friends winced when I mentioned this) and I use an abundance of finely chopped cloves of garlic and fry them gently in not more than a half-centimetre depth of oil otherwise the end result is far too oily. When the garlic begins to brown I scoop this out and add to the onions in the dish and keep them simmering.
At this stage, the heat has to be turned to moderate-high and one word of advice – make sure you have a finely meshed pan cover handy because when you place the marinated rabbit parts in the hot oil they can flare and spark and a burn from a flying hot oil spot can be agonising.
The marinate I begin to drain in the dish with the onions and garlic.
Frying time for say, six to eight parts at a time, is approximately 15 minutes, turning the parts over every five minutes or so until (turn heat to low before you do and then up again when turned) they begin to thoroughly brown and when this happens transfer the fried pieces into the dish which has to be on a very low heat just to keep warm otherwise the fry is turned into a stew.
When all the frying is over and all parts have been transferred, together with the garlic and rabbit flavoured frying oil, leave to simmer for a few more minutes.
Meanwhile the chips have also been fried – that is if you want to serve immediately, as well as side vegetables of choice although I normally stick to just peas and nothing else. Serve the whole hot.
If you want to prepare and serve later turn off the dish heat and keep in a warm place. When later you fry or grill cook the chips, place the dish in the oven 30 minutes on minimum heat before serving to enable it to heat up, and serve.
For spaghetti sauce, finely chop the liver, heart, lungs and diced flap parts in a little oil, turning frequently. Add a finely chopped onion and an abundance of finely chopped garlic and two or three bay leaves, pepper and salt. When the meat has browned add a little wine and simmer until the wine evaporates and then add tomato salsa and leave to simmer for as long as you wish, the longer the more flavour inducing.
If you don’t like the heat in the kitchen and want to sit, relax and enjoy, the village of Mgarr in the north of Malta specialises in a number of restaurants that mainly serve rabbit but have an extensive menu that may even include horse meat. An accompaniment of stewed petit gris snails is also widely available.
June 29th is the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, known in Maltese as ‘l-Imnarja’ with extensive displays and shows held at Buskett Gardens, near Rabat. The food menu is extensively rabbit and chips eaten al fresco in a festive environment in normally fine weather at this early summer stage.
As I write this, tomorrow is Sunday and guess what’s on the menu? Yes, fried rabbit and chips washed down with lots of wine and of course loads of Maltese bread because what is fried rabbit unless you have crusty Maltese bread to soak up the oil and gravy.
On a weekly basis I am inserting a Maltese saying, expression or proverb and where possible English equivalents that will help give insight into the Maltese psyche.
“Whoever cooks the stew-pot really knows what’s in it.”
In a confused and muddled situation only those centrally involved really know what’s going on and what created the confusion and the muddle.