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Food, Dining, & Drinks in the Maldives

Historic Diet

The Maldives is a small island chain with a very limited number of foods as variety is almost non-existent. Due to their geography the historic diet is also very limited in scope and is almost entirely based on coconut and fish, two important foods even today. The most common fish off the islands' shores include tuna, scad, and mahi-mahi, although hundreds of other species exist.

Culinary Influences

In addition to sea food and coconut, numerous root crops, like taro root were later added to the Maldivian diet to give the foods a simple base that has changed little. Where changes have come most noticeably are in spices.

As Islam arrived to the Maldives in the 1100s a couple dietary restrictions were placed on the new adherents: pork cannot be consumed and alcohol is forbidden. Although these two restrictions didn't truly alter the local diet at the time, they have since limited the cuisine.

As an island chain, the Maldives has been the recipient of numerous foods that have been traded across the Indian Ocean, most commonly after the Europeans got involved in this trade. The European focus became almost wholly on spices and these spices arrived to the islands, changing their diet. The people began adopting many of these spices as their own and today the spice palate and dishes in the Maldives are very similar to that of Sri Lanka or India.

As tourism arrived to the Maldives it also brought new foods. While the local people rarely consume foreign foods, the numerous resorts serve almost nothing but these foods. In addition to vast amounts of alcohol, the foods that can be found in these resorts and restaurants include foods from nearly every part of the world. German, British, French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and American foods are all common in the country today.

Staple Foods

Fish: although not a staple in the true sense of the word, fish is present in most dishes
Rice: served as a base in many dishes and is prepared in numerous ways
Tubers/Potatoes: numerous types exist, including taro, sweet potato, and others, many of which act as a base or side

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Garudhiya: the national dish is tuna, peppers, onions, and lime served with rice
Kavaabu: rice, tuna, coconut, and lentils formed in a ball and deep fried

Dining Etiquette

When eating in the Maldives, remember that you are in a Muslim country and with that comes a couple etiquette rules you must know and follow. First, dress on the conservatively side (see our Maldives Culture Page for more details). Second, in conservative homes and even some restaurants, it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse. While this is very uncommon today, to some conservative Muslims this is important so observe the local restaurant's situation and follow their lead. Fortunately, most restaurants in the country today are catered to tourists so there are no issues on dress, company, or nearly anything else so long as you are polite.

If you get by those first two rules, try to arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes at the door. Greet the elders first, but men should not touch the hand of a woman, unless she offers her hand. No matter, you should greet and acknowledge everyone. Prior to sitting down you may be asked to wash your hands; follow the lead of others to know when and where to wash your hands, but you must do so prior to eating. Let your host seat you and when sitting be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the soles of your feet at another can be offensive. More commonly you will only be eating in local restaurants that are primarily catered to foreigners so the rules reflect that of Europe or North America.

Once the food begins to arrive, your host may direct you to certain dishes you should eat; accept all of your host's suggestions as turning down food can be rude. Although you must take all of their suggestions, try to limit the amount you take so you can later accept additional food, which is a great compliment.

Eat as the locals eat; in many homes this means eating directly with your right hand (and your right hand only), but in most resorts and restaurants in Male you may be offered dining utensils (cutlery), in which case eat in the continental style (knife or spoon in the right hand, fork in the left). If a knife is not present, most locals will hold the spoon in their right hand and eat primarily from the spoon. No matter which utensil you hold in which hand, be sure to only bring food to your mouth with the utensil in your right hand. As you finish your food, and your second helping of food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was more than enough. After everyone gets up from the table, you should again follow the lead of others and wash your hands once more.

Most resorts and restaurants in the capital include a service change on the bill and there is no need to leave an additional tip. If there is no service charge included, leave about 10% for sit down restaurants; tipping at teahouses is not necessary or expected.

Celebrations & Events

In the Maldives, Eid al Fitr is celebrated with meat. Eid al Fitr is a celebration that occurs immediately after Ramadan, a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days. Eid al Fitr is celebrated with the heavy use of both meat and oil, two items which symbolize wealth and are rich and filling enough to satisfy anyone who has fasted for a full month. Many times fish dishes are also included in the celebration, but are less prominent. These foods are followed with desserts and the selection of sweets can be quite varied.

The second major religious food celebration in the Maldives is Eid al Adha, which is only celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of traditional dishes, but includes more meat that the typical daily diet; the foods served are not unlike those served during Eid al Fitr.

Drinks

The two most popular local drinks in the Maldives are seasonal juices and tea. Juices vary by season and vary nearly as widely with price, but mango and pineapple are two of the most popular. Tea is also very common among the locals and is available everywhere. For a more unique drink, try raa, which is made from the sap of palm trees and sometimes fermented (so it may be alcoholic, but barely so). Coffee and soft drinks are available in nearly every hotel and resort in the country as well.

As a primarily Muslim country, the Maldives has very little alcohol available in public places. However, the country thrives on tourism and the high end hotels and resorts provide their guests with a wide selection of international alcohols (lower end hotels tend to have a more limited selection). When in a resort there is no taboo of drinking alcohol; if in public you most likely won't find any alcohol, but if you do remember that most locals don't drink and you should follow suite. Also try to avoid going out in public if inebriated.

The tap water in the Maldives may be safe, but there is debate on the issue. Most hotels use desalinated water that is purified, but still many of these same hotels claim the water should be avoided. To be safe avoid the tap water and be weary of anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: September, 2012