Where’s the Holy Inquisition when you need it? The online lampuki pie recipe I’d just come across called for processed peas. I stopped reading immediately and pronounced my anathema by closing the window with a contemptuous flick of the finger. 

I’m not alone in being doctrinal about what should go into the pie. The dolphin fish (or dorado) may be found across the Mediterranean, and indeed the world, but we Maltese have strong proprietary feelings about it. 

In divulging my own recipe (to be precise, the matrilineal family recipe I strive to be worthy of), I have encountered many a “hmm” from older matrons, priestesses of other kitchens. Yes, of course no marjoram! But, what, no mint? Did you just say eggs?

They purse their lips with just a hint of a quizzical eyebrow and narrowing of a sceptical eye. It’s a stony politeness rarely seen outside the exchange of signs of peace during Mass. 

One well-meaning reader has tried to save me from myself. On learning I intended to write about the pie, she warned: “Steer clear of giving a recipe! You have no idea what they’ll dig up and throw at you.” (“They” self-evidently being the latter-day Bogumils, Cathars, Waldensians and Hussites, know-nothing heretics stalking cyberspace, eager to promulgate their version of the authentic pie in upper-case and with multiple exclamation marks.) 

Fear not. The catholicity of The Times is safe. It’s not the recipe itself I want to address. It’s the riddle of our attitude to the recipe.

The lampuki pie has a universal, classless appeal. And, yet, we are all unapologetic snobs when we bite into it, ready to look down on anyone, not least professional cooks. 

Why? There’s no other dish quite like it. Rabbit stew, another dish with a national appeal, is accompanied by preferences but they’re not strong or doctrinaire. It’s the same with ħobż biż-żejt. 

Other white fish divide us into champions of simplicity (just a little olive oil and lemon) and those who’d add wine, garlic and tomatoes. But it’s a simple binary division, with a loose connection to social class. There’s no fetish of minor differences.

Popular steak fish are different, too. Tuna and swordfish are cooked according to a gold standard we all aspire to, whether accompanied with or without a sauce. 

Lampuki are like this when cooked on their own. As a pie, however, there’s no universal gold standard. Chefs don’t get to call the shots as they do with pastizzi and qassatat, where household versions seek to emulate those of the professional cafés. On the contrary, a lampuki pie served by a café is one that emulates home cooking (and often is found wanting). 

So, what’s the deal? Here’s my stab at the answer. Before we understand the snobbery about the pie, we need to understand the popularity of the fish. 

Air Malta advertises the fish to its passengers as delicious. No, it’s not. And there lies its secret. Lampuki are good but not delicious. There are plenty of finer fish, apart from octopus and the truly delicious Maltese varieties of prawns and shrimp. 

The lampuki pie has a universal, classless appeal- Ranier Fsadni

With deliciousness, however, comes a strong identity of taste, which is always divisive. Finer fish can be a bit too “fishy” for some. Octopus and crustaceans call for strong sauces that are not to everyone’s liking. If wild, fine fish and seafood are expensive.

Lampuki are inoffensive middle-of-the-roaders. As long as you don’t have to clean and cook them yourself, they’re not too “fishy”. They’re more neutral in taste. Like chicken, they lend themselves to many ways of cooking and many tastes. They’re wild but can be cheap. 

Above all, lampuki have autumn practically all to themselves (imported or farmed fish apart). They command everyone’s dietary attention irrespective of class. 

Indeed, they define their season the way no other fish does. In this respect, they’re more like figs and prickly pears in August, or pomegranates this month, or broad beans in late spring. Lampuki are in a class of their own as fish. It’s not because of some objective taste that can be determined by discriminating palates. It’s because of how they command our attention and creativity. 

The lampuki season truly comes into its own after the end of summer. While summer is gregarious, with friends invited over for barbecues and suppers alfresco, autumn generally sees nuclear families eat on their own. There aren’t many occasions where people, who are not part of the same extended family, share a lampuki pie.

It’s not just a seasonal matter. It has to do with the work that goes into a lampuki pie. 

A lot of home cooking consists of stews that look after themselves. Grilled and baked fish cook quickly and need little preparation. Not the lampuki pie. 

Unlike a lot of home cooking, it calls for multi-stage preparation. The fish must be meticulously cleaned of even the tiniest of bones. Then it must be cooked and put aside. 

For the filling (with its Druid-like formula), particular ingredients may need individual preparation and be thrown in the right sequence (or else the taste changes and the family cognoscenti will tell you: “It’s good, but…”). It needs to be set aside for several hours so that the juices mingle.

The more guests, the more exponentially the work increases. No wonder the pie is reserved for family members and its cooking is reserved, more and more, for grandmothers and sainted aunts.

In a globalised world, where jobs, education, marriage and eating habits are increasingly international and cosmopolitan, the lampuki pie remains a family dish for members of the inner sanctum. How many people get to taste the pies of others?

It’s this particular dish that shaped our taste buds. It’s according to this palate that we judge all other pies. No wonder they all fall short. 

We may think we make the pies. But the pies have also made us, shaping us from within and using us to reproduce themselves across the generations. 


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