When I think about visiting my grandparents for lunch, hobz biz-zejt (a Maltese open sandwich) features highly in my memories. Simple and rustic as it may be, the joy is in the making: gathering around a table laden with crusty bread, oil, tuna, olives, pickled onions, capers, all hands on deck as you become an elite sandwich artist. There would be noise and laughter to garnish the lunch, hands passing dishes across the table every which way, and then a brief hush as mouths and stomachs become fuller. It is so simple to throw together that it is not even worthy of being called cooking, let alone a recipe. My husband, who would be the first to say that the kitchen isn’t his most comfortable domain, can make this with confidence, and it’s one of those lunches that he requests quite regularly.
Hobz biz-zejt literally translates to ‘bread with oil’ and that is pretty much the basis of this sandwich. It is to Malta what bruschetta is to Italy. In my opinion, if you don’t end up with oily sticky hands and drop bits of tuna and stray capers all over the place while you are eating, then you’re not doing it properly. This is a hands-on sandwich so relish the making as much as you savour the eating. This is also a good way to use day-old continental bread as it is pressed into extra virgin olive oil and spread with tomato paste, what the Maltese call kunserva, before being topped with tinned fish which has been stored in its own oil or brine. You don’t want bread that can’t handle the oil without becoming soggy and falling apart. My grandmother would often use the oil from the tinned tuna or from the jar of preserved olives in place of extra virgin as it would already be packed with flavour. She would also preference rubbing her oiled bread with fresh tomato in place of the kunserva whereas I prefer to be slightly heavy handed with the tomato paste.
The first time I visited Malta in 1997, hobz biz-zejt rolls were being sold at the counter at what I believe was the first and only McDonalds at the time in Valletta. You would see men at the social clubs playing cards and eating this sandwich with a bottle of Kinnie. When I went back a second time in the winter of 2006, my great auntie would buy a big Maltese ring loaf of bread, called a ftira, slice it in half through the middle, turn it into a big hobz biz-zejt donut and then grill it in a convection oven. This was the first and only time I have eaten it toasted and while I have often thought about grilling my sandwich, usually I am too impatient to waste precious eating time.
If you are lucky enough to be able to find a small Maltese cheese known as gbejniet, these are a perfect accompaniment to the open sandwich. They are hard to find in Australia with many Maltese people starting to make their own and either eating them fresh, which has the consistency of a cross between ricotta and silken tofu, or drying and peppering them to preserve in vinegar and oil. When they are dried and preserved, they take on a more rubbery crumbly consistency and the vinegary flavour is more pronounced. My mother and my auntie are both going through a gbejniet making phase at the moment, so I am enjoying my hobz biz-zejt more when I am lucky to have a few of these small cheeses thrown in my direction.
Maltese Open Sandwich
- 2 generous slices of crusty continental bread
- 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Tinned tuna, in oil
- 2 – 3 Tablespoons tomato paste, or one ripe tomato cut in half
- 1 Tablespoon capers
- 2 – 3 Tablespoons fresh basil, roughly shredded
- Cracked fresh black pepper, to taste
- 1 small Lebanese cucumber, quartered
- Pickled onions, olives and/or giardiniera
- 1 gbejniet – if you can find one!
Drizzle the extra virgin olive oil onto a large dinner plate and swirl the plate to move the oil evenly around the plate.
Press each slice of bread onto the plate to absorb all of the oil, then press the oiled sides of bread together to ensure the oil is evenly distributed.
Spread the tomato paste over the oiled sides of the bread, or if you want to be like my Nanna, rub and squeeze fresh tomato over the bread to spread the seeds and juices.
Drain the tuna and spread evenly on top of the tomato-dressed bread.
Sprinkle over with capers, cracked pepper, torn fresh basil leaves, and drizzle with a little extra olive oil.
Finish your plate with a generous serve of olives, pickled onions and/or giardiniera, and the fresh crisp cucumber quarters on the side.