It’s the day before Ramadan – islanders awaken early to face the gargantuan task of cleaning the Dharu un’dhun (wood burning oven) in preparation for Ramadan. Some members of the family had diligently prepared provisions for the day such as Bimbi (millet flour) delicacies, dried tuna, coconut flesh and other snacks to be enjoyed on the beach. The slow ripples of waves hugging the beach are only drowned out by the laughter of young children at play and the conversation that flow among the people gathered. All this, while the ovens receive a thorough cleaning while looking forward to the holy month ahead.
This is just one of the norms and traditions that surround Maldivian food culture that was discussed with Jeehan Saleem during our chat. Most know Jee and her family for the truly authentic and aesthetically appealing home-cooked food that center around traditional Maldivian cooking. Homecooked Maldives’s hosting of Island Bazaar’s anniversary event in 2019 was one for the books. Turns out she is not only a strong believer in sustaining the rich flavours of our ancestors, she is also an avid reader and researcher of origins and history as well as the science of genetics. All of this made for a great chat as we delved into a truly holistic view of Maldivian food culture over Dhan’di Aluvi Boakiba (Cassava Cake) and Mas Boakiba (Savoury Fish Cake).
Homecooked MV is a small business venture born out of the years a family spent cooking together, while staying true to the Maldivian taste. Jee has been doing this for as long as she can remember and recalls the Raha – Exhibition of Maldivian Food that has taken place since 1998. This event was her mother’s dream; she wanted something to celebrate Women’s Day and included approximately 150 plus varieties of traditional food items. According to her, it was a team effort – from hunting down ingredients to packaging, as well as getting the word out regarding the event. Even though the Raha Exhibition still keeps going strong, Homecooked MV is currently dedicated towards an expansion – having started the Instagram page @homecooked_maldives in September of 2018. The bespoke nature of services offered by the novel business for any event is truly exemplary.
She notes that while she prefers whipping up desserts and dishes on the sweeter side, one of her sisters is like her mother, and is a master in all fronts. “We each have our own specialties,”Jee said.
It was while she was residing in Beijing that she noticed how the conversation around Maldives mostly revolved around white sandy beaches and resorts. “We are more than that.” Diving into the fact that Maldivian traditions have always been embroiled in a deeply diverse food culture, she points out that the tradition of Maahefun before every Ramadan had a sense of community and togetherness centered on food. One of the reasons for Homecooked MV was also the rising interest that the youth have in traditional cuisine.
“It is beyond the traditional Garudhiya and Baiy (Rice with Fish Broth).We can restore our culture, the food culture.”
While there are currently several “fusion foods” emerging within the market, Jee emphasises on the importance of how the measurements and methods of cooking should stay true to hold together the “Dhivehi” tastes. She noted the age-old diversity across Maldives in terms of food, and pointed out that in reality, the variations from island to island alone are more than what is known in the mainstream. She highlighted that the North is more diverse than just Haalu Folhi (delicate Maldivian crepes) from Kulhudhuffushi, and that Addu alone has more to offer than Addu Bon’di. She highlighted the “candy” that residents of Meedhoo prepare, and the beauty of the culture in welcoming everyone to come in and have a taste as well as diligently distributing it to other households.
After discussing the similarities of a type of bread from the South of Maldives to a version served in Uzbekistan, we went into a deep discussion on the geographic location of Maldives making it ripe for the introduction of food from other cultures as well. She has a deep interest in the history and settlements of Maldives and the infusion of food into different parts of our culture throughout time. We also discussed the disconnection that has existed in Maldives in terms of awareness of the unique cultures of so many scattered islands, and how the challenge comes from cultural and geographic isolation in history. She noted that the norms have changed only very recently and hopes that the increase in access to different islands within Maldives will bring back a love for the culture as well as food culture. She hopes to travel extensively throughout Maldives, experiencing and learning the cuisine that are unique to the islands.
As a first step to increasing access to local cuisine, Homecooked Maldives will be releasing a traditional recipe book sometime, early 2020.
Jee has come a long way from her family’s kitchen, for it was while she was residing in Beijing that she began to write down her mother and sister’s recipes for hosting traditional meals. After the recipe bundle expanded alarmingly in width, she typed it up and was surprised that the recipes were by itself organised in a complementary manner. Upon the encouragement of her husband, she finally decided to publish a book of “50 Something Recipes” based off of several long-distance conversations with her mother and sister, tied up with the years of experience cooking with her family. Several authentic photographs captured on visits to Maldives later since 2017, and the book is almost ready to hit the shelves. Her wish is to make sure that it is easily available at local bookstores and other establishments, as well as accessible to the international community for an affordable price.
“It is a gift from me, my sisters and my mother to anybody who loves food, who loves Maldives.”
Jee mentioned the difficulties in collecting ingredients for an authentic, nutritionally-dense Maldivian dishes such as Dhon’ Fathu Riha (Light Leafy Curry) while living abroad and even in the Maldives right now.
“It is very hard to get all the ingredients such as Muranga Faiy (Moringa leaves) and Dhoshimeynaa Faiy while living abroad, so I have suggested alternatives in the book that would help with the recipe.”
She recalled how she used to find that certain recipes go better with each other when hosting a traditional Maldivian meal. She has therefore infused the recipe book with menus of recipes in terms of time and occasion. For those that feel overwhelmed with unknown terms, a glossary of will also be featured in the book amidst recipes of Kukulhu Musamma (Chicken Musamma Curry) and Fen’ Fathafolhi (Rice and Coconut Crepes). She said that there are still more dishes to unveil and we are definitely looking forward to Part 2 of the recipe book. She hopes that the book will help any level of cook in preparing traditional Maldivian dishes.
“You do not have to be an expert to follow the recipes, it is for everyone,” she said.
Homecooked Maldives looks to be a household name in the future where Jee has the dream of opening an environmentally-conscious restaurant of pre-ordered fresh Maldivian food. She would like to prioritise employing women and single mothers in a place of high quality food.
While she credits her inspiration to be great compliments of her customers and those that enjoy her food, she says that it is her mother and her family that are her motivation. Ultimately, Jeehan Saleem hopes that revival of culture, and food culture, stays true to authenticity.
By Jumana Shareef