An Ocean on the Plate- The New Indian Express

An Ocean on the Plate- The New Indian Express

  15 Jan 2024

Express News Service

The usher swiftly wraps a mundu (sarong) around the diners’ waists steering them into the cosy confines of a restaurant crafted from cedar wood and beach coral. Reminiscent of the charming homes that pepper the Maldives, the space teems with lush foliage, artwork on walls, gigantic terracotta urns and antique wooden tables illuminated by soft lighting. Outside, the Indian Ocean sends forth gentle, foamy waves under an iridescent moon.

The eatery is Kaage, the archipelago’s first fine-dining Maldivian cuisine restaurant at Varu by Atmosphere resort. Cerulean waters surround this dreamy island hideaway nestled in the North Malé Atoll, a 40-minute speedboat ride from Male. The multiple award-winning eatery promises ‘local flavours with a progressive twist’. The meal begins with a flurry of hedikas (short eats): crispy tuna cutlets, bajiya (fritters) and Kopi fai (chard leaves, pears, blue cheese and tuna). The ‘Vegetable Spheres’—crafted from vegetables, coconut milk and pandan leaves—mimic the Indian kofta balls.  

Everything tastes familiar, yet not quite. There’s a reason for this, explains Chef Mohamed Niyas. “Maldivian food carries inflections from Sri Lankan as well as Indian cuisine, but has its own personality. Our gravies are coconut-based and we use pandan leaves as well as the fiery hot native Maldivian chilies, which give a distinct flavour to the food,” he elaborates.

Indeed, two things drive the Dhivehi food culture: coconut and fish. “The former is a staple incorporated in different forms like milk, oil or grated as a garnish on top of dishes, while the latter turns up in a million avatars,” says Niyas. The mains underscore the chef’s point. There’s Kandukukulhu (tuna roll) teamed with a chard leaves salad; Mushimas (deep-fried mackerel) in a fiery paste served with a yellow potato curry; Garudhiya or tuna soup infused with drumstick leaves; and Kulhi mas (chicken breast) paired with fragrant coconut rice.

Dhivehi cuisine is a smorgasbord of flavours imbued as it is with a mild spiciness and subtle sweetness. Prepared using techniques passed down generations, each dish is a deft interplay of spices and fresh local produce. This becomes evident at Oblu Select Sangeli, a five-star resort located on Sangeli Island. The sybaritic, private island with pristine sandy beaches and a lapis lazuli lagoon rimmed by coral reefs is located at the north-western tip of Malé Atoll, an hour by speedboat from Velana International Airport.

The resort’s breakfast buffet at its all-day dining, The Courtyard, is invariably an Instagrammable cargo of fresh tropical fruits, cheeses, nuts and breadfruit chips. There is tuna bajiya, kukulhuriha in a luxe coconut milk gravy, Mas huni—shredded smoked tuna, served with grated coconut, lemon and onions paired with chapati bread called roshi—and kattala (sweet potato) curry or riha, uniformly loved all over the archipelago and eaten with rice.

The Maldives, comprising 1,192 islands, is a unique ecosystem that hosts 5 percent of Earth’s reefs as well as a staggering variety of fish. Apart from the beloved tuna, reef fish too turns up in varied forms in Dhivehi dishes like hideka, curries as well as the flavour-charged tandoori masala-spiced fish cutlet served with coconut-mint chutney. Other curries like the mixed vegetable kirugarudhiya are mopped up with the rustic coconut-stuffed roshi.

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