Going coconuts over tuna

Published: May 14, 2019, 07:02 IST | Shunashir Sen

A chef from the Maldives, who recently hosted a dinner at a Byculla venue, reveals how the two ingredients form the backbone of the island nation's cuisine

Going coconuts over tuna
Chef Derrick Walles

Though it’s located in the Indian Ocean close to our shores, there aren’t too many people here who are familiar with Maldivian cuisine. So, when Derrick Walles, head chef at Soneva Fushi, an award-winning resort at the island, visited Mumbai recently to host a dinner at a Byculla venue, we chatted with him about some of the unique features that make Maldivian food different from the culinary traditions prevalent elsewhere. Walles is originally from Sri Lanka, which is evident in his thick accent. But having spent eight years at the resort now, he has imbibed the local food culture to create a range of mainly fusion dishes.

Here is Walles’s primer on Maldivian eating habits.

Marrying different influences: Given the large number of Indians, Sri Lankans and people from the Far East who have migrated to the Maldives over the years, it follows that some of the culinary processes of each of these countries have seeped into the food of the island. “But since we don’t have a lot of spices growing there, we have to import things like cloves, cardamom, cumin and coriander,” Walles says.

mas huni
Mas huni

It’s all about tuna: After tourism, fishing is the second biggest industry in the Maldives. And tuna is one species that is netted the most. It is, in fact, caught in such large numbers that the Maldives government has tied up with Japan — another Asian country where the fish is found in large quantities — to can, process and then import it. It’s a part of the staple diet to such an extent that it appears in all sorts of dishes, such as salads and curries, and comes in different varieties like skipjack and yellow fin.

Coconut is king: Outside of the fact that it’s an island where the fruit is found in abundance, the waves of migration from Sri Lanka and South India is another reason why you can’t escape coconut while digging into a Maldivian meal. “In summer, we make a coconut broth that is used as a base for different curries. We use a lot of coconut oil for deep-fried dishes,” Walles says, adding that the fruit also features in desserts like coconut crumble.

A breakfast must-have: It’s no surprise, then, that a day in the life of a Maldivian usually begins with a dish called mas huni, which features the island’s two star ingredients — tuna and grated coconut. It’s a type of salad that also has diced onions and chillies, and is usually had with a flatbread called roshi and an assortment of fried snacks, including a version of the samosa.

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