Although many may find it unusual, considering rabbits to be mere fluffy pets, rabbit stew (stuffat tal-fenek) is considered to be Malta’s national signature dish. It is so popular in fact, that it has become part of our family traditions and social culture. Groups of friends and family members traditionally meet up to enjoy a ‘fenkata’, together, that is, a meal focussing on dishes containing rabbit meat, and rabbit sauce, as well as other traditional delicacies. Many restaurants around the islands specialise in cooking rabbit, and in offering specific related offers and/or events for all the family. ‘Laħam tal-fenek’ (rabbit meat) is also served in a large number of ‘no-frills’ bars around the island. If you are attending a ‘fenkata’ for the first time, beware – the portions are enormous and the food just keeps on coming!
Rabbit stew is a dish which originates from before early medieval times. At the time, wild rabbits were actually classified as a pest in Malta, as they were too numerous on the island. This, combined with the fact that meat was so expensive at the time, led the locals to hunt and eat rabbits as part of their cuisine. Later on, with the advent of the Order of the Knight of Saint John, these started to prohibit the hunting and eating of rabbits among the normal populace, reserving the right for themselves. Needless to be said, illegal hunting and poaching of wild rabbits continued, until, after the prohibition was lifted more than a hundred years later, indigenous wild rabbits had much decreased in number.
The love of the Maltese for rabbit meat however, never waned. Rabbits started to be reared domestically with the sole aim of being fattened for the table. Of course, rabbit meat is also imported, however most Maltese believe that local rabbit is much fatter, tastier and healthier, and so prefer to buy it locally.
A ‘fenkata’ usually starts off with some traditional Maltese finger food and snacks, such as ‘ħobż biż-żejt’ (Maltese bread garnished with tomato spread, capers and oil), ‘bigilla’ (spicy bean paste), and ‘bebbux’ (cooked snails). Next up, the first plate generally consists of spaghetti cooked in rabbit sauce, while the main course is, of course, rabbit stew with potatoes. A popular variant to the stew is rabbit meat fried in red wine and/or oil, which is usually served with typical British potato chips. Apart from the rabbit meat, other parts of its body are generally served as part of the stew, such as the liver, the heart and the kidneys. These can also be served as part of a starter plate, and also fried in olive oil.
Different family recipes for Maltese stew have been handed out for generations. In essence, the rabbit is left to marinate in a blend of red wine, tomato sauce, garlic, bay leaves and spices for some hours, then set on a low-flame in a cooking pot for at least an hour and a half to simmer further. Most Maltese prepare a large stew, especially if they are cooking for a large family dinner, and so may use from one up to three rabbits, depending on their size. The kidneys, liver and heart may be eaten either with the spaghetti first dish, or combined with the main one. Roast potatoes, usually garnished with fennel seeds and rosemary, are usually served with the main dish as well, accompanied by fresh crusty Maltese bread. And of course – don’t forget the red wine!