From cherry tomato gazpacho with avocado pesto, served with a cold melon sorbet and light coconut sauce, to roasted mushrooms with polenta, the vegetarian offerings in the Maldives are an explosion of flavours both unexpected and enjoyable.
A plant-centric cuisine in a country famous for its seafood may sound like an anomaly, but Just Veg, the signature restaurant at Atmosphere Kanifushi Resort, just 40 minutes by seaplane from the capital Male, bucks the trend.
As the first vegetarian restaurant launched a decade ago in this archipelago of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean, it is responsible for leading the popularity of vegetarian fare in the Maldives.
The recent culinary extravaganza was curated by guest chef Fabrizio Marino, who runs a revolutionary vegetarian restaurant in San Miniato, Tuscany, called Maggese.
It is rated as one of the top restaurants in Italy offering molecular fusion cuisine. The chef’s menu was a fusion of French and Italian cuisine with some touches of Asian too.
Ask for anything from vegetarian tacos to Maldivian locavore curry, and chances are you won’t be disappointed.
Chef Fabrizio, whose mother comes from Puglia and father from Livorno in Italy, grew up with both his parents cooking and loving food. Slowly he started gravitating towards ethical choices. “You must pay attention to the purity and quality of ingredients.
In Asia, the tendency is to use a lot of spices,” says the chef, whose food philosophy centres on restraint and avoiding the overuse of spices. “Everything on the plate should be inspiring,” says the chef, who loves to give a twist to classic combinations. His light Italian Taleggio cheese foam, with pear syrup, hazelnut, and confit of black truffle is his spin on the classic cheese and pear combination.
What stands out about Chef Fabrizio’s food is that though it is fine dining at its best, each dish also is comfort food as it boasts simple ingredients. For example, his slow-cooked signature creamy risotto, which is an integral part of Italian Tuscan cuisine and a boon to vegetarians, is made with carnaroli rice with sour butter, pumpkin-toasted walnuts and green herb extract.
This is juxtaposed against the tangy smoked and roasted eggplant with a crisp skin (which the chef says was inspired by Peking Duck), marinated in soy sauce for a day, and is served with hummus and refreshing green cucumber extract.
The Maldivian love for all things coconut finds resonance in its curries, soups, stir-fries and desserts, and reminds one of the coconut-abundant dishes of Kerala and Sri Lanka.
In fact, other than Chef Fabrizio’s creations, the restaurant serves an array of Sri Lankan street food such as Kottu paratha and a vegetarian Maldivian breakfast of roshis (rotis) served with creamy pumpkin curry, fried moringa leaves, mango chutney and grated coconut tossed with lime and diced onion. The pleasure one finds in the powdery beaches and the depths of the ocean in the Maldives can be equally experienced in its vegetarian cuisine too.