My rule of thumb for checking out the quality of food in a new restaurant is to order a steaming bowl of fragrant aljotta.

I must confess I’m an aljotta afficionado. For me it’s one of the most delicious fish soups imaginable… if cooked well. Not long ago, on a first visit to a certain famous fish restaurant, I naturally ordered aljotta. It tasted like dishwater with unidentifiable white grey lumps. And, indeed, the rest of the meal was barely mediocre.

The same week we popped in for a quick lunch at a tiny back street café. The aljotta was the most amazingly rich, luscious soup you can imagine. Nothing else was needed (apart from Maltese bread, of course, to mop up every single drop).

The aljotta was divine. A culinary masterpiece. When I gushed praise – hoping for the recipe – I received a kindly rebuff: well, it’s a recipe from my grandmother and… a family secret, I was told.

Disappointed, I returned home (via the fishmonger) and tried to recreate this culinary tour de force.

I am currently on the fourthtasting test .

The morale of my little story is that food has to be cooked with love and passion (even a simple fish soup). Sitting back on your laurels and basking in your ‘reputation’ is dangerous – diners will soon get wise and go elsewhere.

So what is aljotta? I asked everyone, from the ladies selling fresh fish in the market in Marsaxlokk to restaurateurs, housewives and fishermen, for a definitive answer. Each response was different – simplistically I deduced it’s a tasty fish stock enhanced with garlic, tomatoes, fresh marjoram and bulked out with potato or rice.

Some said it was to utilise leftovers – particularly the trimmings; others said it was more of a treat with numerous different species of fish simmering away to make a rich broth… Like every traditional recipe, there are more permutations than you can shake a stick at. The arguments over exact ingredients will go on ad infinitum.

Marjoram – no way! Basil – essential... Lots of parsley – vital… It has to be lampuki – no grouper! But, like Sherlock Homes, weighing and balancing all the clues, I concluded it was originally an economic way of making a small piece of fish go a long way for a large family with rice and/or potatoes to bulk it out and tomatoes as an optional ingredient.

Today’s recipe was given to me by my favourite fish shop – Bezzina’s in Żebbuġ by Marlene and Laura.

1 medium finely chopped onion
2 crushed cloves of garlic
2 tbsp each of freshly chopped parsley and marjoram
2 tbsp virgin olive oil
1 tbsp kunserva (tomato paste)
Tin tomato pulp – optional
800 g fish of choice cut into pieces and placed in a muslin bag
Water to cover
100 grams of rice and/or 2 small cubed potatoes
Seasoning to taste

Lemon wedges

Place the fish in a large piece of muslin. In a large saucepan, fry the onion and garlic in the oil until soft. If using, add the tomatoes, herbs and water and bring to the boil. Add the fish and cook slowly until the fish is cooked. When cooked, remove the fish from the bag and the cooked flesh from the fish pieces. Strain the liquid and add the rice and/or potatoes, cooking until they are soft. If preferred, fork through and lightly mash the potatoes. Return the fish to the pan. Warm through and check seasoning. Serve with lemon wedges.

Tip: Add juice of 1 lemon immediately before serving and ensure the soup is piping hot before eating. Add extra fish trimmings (in the muslin cloth) for more flavour or add a fish cube for a stronger fish flavour.

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