Asia’s smallest country, both in population and in land size, the Maldives is a tiny island nation that’s 99 percent water and is famous for powdery, white sand beaches flanked by the turquoise Indian Ocean, overwater villas, vibrant tropical greenery, and some great dive spots.
Let’s not forget romantic candlelight dinners, champagne sunsets, and some truly memorable and unique dining experiences. Be it dinner under the ocean in an exquisite underwater restaurant, a private dinner on the beach with your toes in the sand, or perhaps a table for two on the verandah of your overwater bungalow — these are guaranteed to be dining experiences you’ll never forget.
The Maldivian archipelago is home not only home to a myriad of tropical islands, white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and gin-clear waters that teem with marine life – it also offers some of the most delicious cuisine in the region.
Traditional Maldivian cuisine, also known as Dhivehi cuisine, provides a wonderful variety and unique tastes and flavors, a distinct tang made of mild spiciness, delicate sweetness, and an overall exotic taste, and all prepared using cooking techniques that have been passed down through the generations. This is a cuisine of rich traditional flavors, seasoned in ways that blend Sinhalese, Indian, and Arab influences.
The three pillars of traditional Maldivian cuisine are coconut, fish, and starch. Coconuts, called kurumba in Dhivehi, are grown on every island in the Maldives. The island’s thin topsoil is challenging to farm, except for coconut palms, which are cultivated in great numbers and are such a vital part of the culture and cuisine that the coconut palm has been declared the country’s national tree. Coconut is used in a variety of forms in Maldivian cuisine, from grated and shaved to coconut milk and as oil.
In an ocean-bound island nation, it’s not surprising that fish is the star ingredient of the cuisine — with tuna being the king — and is eaten in all kinds of dishes. Rihaakuru, a thick brown paste made from smoked tuna, that has been boiled for many hours, is eaten daily in practically every Maldivian home, often accompanied by rice (which has to be imported), taro, sweet potato, or breadfruit.
Maldivians also have their own version of curry powder or paste, called lonumirus, which derives its unique flavor from the addition of coconut and pandan, to the more traditional curry spices of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and cumin.
1. Local Dishes
When traveling it’s often easy and tempting to stick to the food you know and are comfortable with. My first breakfast in the Maldives was at JOALI Maldives, and the vast array of options left my head spinning. Whilst the eggs Benedict was tempting, and the array of tropical fruit, juices, and smoothies looked enticing, I decided to try a local Maldivian breakfast specialty: mashuni.
Maldivian food revolves around fish, particularly smoked tuna and coconut. Mashuni is a dish made of shredded smoked fish with onion and grated coconut. Served with a fresh-baked roshi (a flatbread similar to Indian/Sri Lankan roti or paratha) it made a very tasty breakfast, and I was glad this was my first experience of local food.
Later in my trip, when staying at Anantara Kihavah Villas, we were treated to a special Maldivian “Dining by Design” dinner. White clothed tables on the beach, glittering lanterns and candles; we sat with our toes in the sand and sampled a selection of local dishes. A salad of local lobster poached in spiced coconut milk, a traditional seafood broth called Kiru Garudiya, followed by some spiced lamb chops, sambal-marinated tuna, and finally a traditional desert Kiru Boakibaa made with coconut milk and ground rice and flavored with aromatic lemongrass, cardamom, cinnamon, and rosewater. An amazing culinary experience.
2. Floating Breakfast
The morning after our beach dinner, I was woken by a gentle knock on the door. My “floating breakfast” was being delivered. If you think breakfast in bed is decadent, then you really need to try a floating breakfast! In case you’re not familiar with the concept, here’s what you need to know – imagine a fully loaded wicker basket, with bakery items, granola, yogurts, jam, honey, marmalade, fresh fruits, eggs (whichever way you fancy), fruit juice, champagne and more — enough food for two people to kick start their day. All this floating on the surface of your private pool, just a few feet above the ocean. Mouth-watering and picturesque at the same time.
3. Underwater Dining
You’d be excused for thinking it would be hard to outdo a floating breakfast — well, how about breakfast underwater? Anantara Kihavah Villas’ underwater SEA restaurant gives you the opportunity to enjoy great food and an incredible underwater experience at the same time. The glass sides of the octagonal dining room allow diners a stunning view of marine life swimming to and fro, so close and so clear that you feel like you could just about touch them! Imagine feasting on lobster eggs Benedict while submerged beneath the Indian Ocean, or sipping champagne in the company of sea turtles — it’s not every day you can say you ate with the fishes!
4. Underwater Wine Tasting
We were to have another fascinating encounter in the world’s first underwater wine cellar and restaurant. This time, an underwater wine tasting with the resort’s knowledgeable and friendly sommelier. Arun talked us through an array of wines, telling us about their history, their profiles, their bouquets, and the way they suited and enhanced various dishes and cuisines. He told us how submerging champagne in the underwater cellar subtly altered the flavors of the wine, and how for every month of submersion the wine aged the equivalent of 5 years.
He also told us about guests who, perhaps coming for a special occasion, can and do request bottles of Dom Pérignon be submerged, usually several months in advance of their arrival. I learned a lot but must confess that it’s rather easy to be distracted when a reef shark, sea turtle, or bunch of eagle rays are swimming past the window!
5. Dining Under The Stars
The rooftop SKY Bar at Anantara Kihavah Villas is a double-story lounge bar with comfortable chairs perfect for stargazing from the open rooftop deck before going indoors to the Maldives’ most powerful overwater observatory for up close star gazing.
The resort’s in-house astronomer and SKY guru guides guests through the maze of stars and constellations, and with little light pollution, guests are rewarded with dramatic views of planets, stars and the moon, all on perfect display. Each session is limited to eight people, and couples can book a special “Honeymoon Stargazing” option that allows honeymooners to name a star after their loved one as an infinite gift.
6. Multinational Cuisines
Yes, you’re in the Maldives. But that doesn’t mean you can’t dine like you’re in Italy, Japan, Southeast Asia, or the shores of the Mediterranean. JOALI Maldives is one of the most luxurious resorts in the Maldives, and this luxuriousness is reflected in their dining experiences.
Soake is the island’s Japanese restaurant. Designed by world-renowned architect Noriyoshi Muramatsu, the restaurant seems to hover above the crystal-clear waters that surround the island, making for an incredible view while enjoying select sakes, sushi, and teppanyaki or kotatsu seating for iron-griddle enthusiasts.
Combine this with the experience of watching white-tipped reef sharks cruising the water below the restaurant, stalking the fish attracted by the underwater lights, and you have the makings of a very memorable meal.
7. Fine Dining With A Paired Menu
Japanese cuisine one night and Italian the next. Fancy some hand-cut marinated Angus beef carpaccio with truffle cream and truffle dressing, paired with some French Champagne? What about golden saffron risotto garnished with gold leaf and washed down with an Australian chardonnay? A four-course dinner with wine pairings selected by the Sommelier at LUX* South Ari Atoll gives you just that!
Allegria restaurant takes you from the Maldives to the Mediterranean. The menu is primarily Italian cuisine — think gnocchi, homemade pasta, fresh seafood, and wood-fired pizzas. For a special treat, Allegria’s wine cellar can be privately booked for small groups, like ours, to dine in the cellar while sampling New World wines.
8. Cooking Course
My culinary journey in the Maldives came full circle when, having eaten traditional Maldivian breakfast on my first morning in this tropical country, I finished my travels at LUX* South Ari Atoll and took part in a cooking course, where we turned out hands to some local dishes.
The enthusiastic chef demonstrated how the selective use of spices enhanced what would otherwise have been very simple dishes. Starting with bis keemiya, somewhat like a samosa, we learned how to fill pastry with tuna, sliced onions, and sautéed, shredded cabbage.
Moving on, we mastered a cabbage and coconut salad before the final course, another traditional dish, Anbu Riha, a unique curry made from smoked tuna cooked with mango, coconut, and fiery hot chilies.