Aljotta, a lemony, herb-rich fish soup, is one of the signature dishes of the Mediterranean island of Malta. In fact, this recipe is an adaptation of one I found on the island nation’s tourist website, malta.com. Aljotta is an important enough dish in Maltese cuisine that the author of this Times of Malta article claims to judge the quality of a new restaurant by the quality of its aljotta. And yet in the end aljotta isn’t a unique Maltese invention. Nope. It’s essentially an adaptation of France’s bouillabaisse. This simple fact speaks volumes about the history and culture of the Republic of Malta.
Malta, Aljotta, and Mediterranean Cuisine
I have to confess that as a person from North America I really know very little about the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta. And consequently, as a person who now spends a good deal of time exploring the rich varieties of Mediterranean cuisine, it also occurred to me recently that I know nothing about Maltese cuisine. But hey, it’s in the Mediterranean Sea, right? Just south of Sicily. So it must have some heavy Sicilian influences. Probably lots of seafood and extra virgin olive oil. These were my assumptions.It’s true that there are strong Sicilian influences in Maltese cuisine. But the influences are apparently much broader than that for some reasons I hadn’t considered.
First, as a tiny island Malta has to import most of its food from elsewhere. And with that comes outside culinary influences.
Second, as a tiny island in a strategically valuable location, Malta has historically been subject to the rule of various Mediterranean powers (Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Sicilians, Roman Catholic Military Orders, the French, and more recently, even the British). The cuisine of Malta has been influenced by all of them (and interestingly, much of the cuisine isn’t as seafood-centric as you might expect).
And Aljotta reflects the influence of France. It’s influence was emphasized all the more due to the fact that as a fish dish Aljotta became a famous Lent dish in this largely Roman Catholic nation.
About This Aljotta Recipe
Enough geeking on the history of Malta. Let’s discuss this recipe a moment, shall we?
This soup is really remarkably simple to make, and yet it’s got loads of light, bright flavor. I used a light white meat fish (rockfish). It would probably be more intense with an oily fish like sardines, and I intend to give that a go one of these days.
I made my version with brown rice because, you know, I like the slow burning carbs and prefer to eat minimally processed whole foods whenever I can. Traditionally it’s made with white rice. That said, it’s very good with brown rice.
I was surprised to learn about the family link to bouillabaisse, because it’s really not all that reminiscent in my view. I have a recipe for that too, if you want to compare. The mint and lemon and rice offer a much different flavor profile than bouillabaisse–one that’s really quite delicious.
Give it a try, won’t you? And do let me know how it turns out. I’d love to hear from you.
- ½ Cup Short Grain Brown Rice
- 1 Large Onion, chopped
- 4 Cloves Garlic, minced
- Pinch of Sea Salt
- 2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 Teaspoon Dried Marjoram
- 1 Teaspoon Dried Mint
- 1 Tablespoon Tomato Paste
- 1 Can of Whole Tomatoes (or 4 Fresh, peeled), chopped
- 2 Cups Quality Fish Stock
- 1 Cup Water
- Freshly Ground Black Pepper to taste
- 1 Pound Fish (I used rockfish, but it can be light, white meat fish like sole, halibut, rockfish, or cod, or an oily fish like sardines or mackerel)
- 2 Lemons (one for juice, one for garnish)
- Pre-cook the brown rice in a separate pot. If you use white rice (I never do) you could cook it in the broth before adding the fish.
- Saute the onion and garlic with a pinch of salt in a heavy bottomed stock pot until the onion is translucent (about 12 minutes).
- Add the marjoram and mint, tomato paste and tomatoes. Bring to a simmer.
- Add the fish stock and water and pepper. Bring back to a simmer.
- Add the fish and cook until done, about 5 - 10 minutes.
- Break up the fish into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Some traditional recipes run the whole soup through a sieve, but I prefer it a bit more rustic and chunky.
- Add the rice and stir.
- Serve hot, stirring in about a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice. Garnish with a lemon wedge.