March 16, 2018   - Vol. X No. 6
Sicily: Culinary Melting Pot of the Entire Mediterranean
Look at any map of the Mediterranean Sea and you’ll see its largest island—Sicily—is smack in the middle. Fertile and centrally located on every trading route in the region, Sicily was conquered and colonized time and again by different cultures, each of which contributed to the potluck richness that even today defines Sicilian cuisine. 

As early as 800 BCE the Greeks colonized Sicily, bringing figs, pomegranates, wheat, walnuts, and hazelnuts to the largely uncultivated island, and planting olive trees and vineyards. Honey, which the Greeks favored for offerings to the gods, also played a major role. Greek influence was so strong that Greek was the common language of most Sicilians until the early Middle Ages, even after several subsequent conquests.

Under the Romans, who took political control in 212 BCE, Sicily was the breadbasket for the city of Rome, with large estates given over to hard durum wheat. Bread retains an outsize profile on the island even today, when Sicilians traditionally fashion altars from elaborate bread sculptures to celebrate the feast day of San Guiseppe (St. Joseph) in mid-March. Bread is never wasted; bread crumbs are a key ingredient in many Sicilian dishes.

The next major wave of conquerors were Muslims from North Africa, who ruled Sicily from the ninth to the eleventh century. They converted the large Roman wheat estates to smaller, well-irrigated holdings growing newly-introduced oranges and lemons, almonds, pistachios, and sugar cane. Combining fruits, sugar, and snow from Mt. Etna, the Muslims (locally referred to as “Arabs”) created sharbat—known as sherbet today—and left Sicily with a decided sweet tooth. They were renowned for their creative ability to make the most of Sicily’s agricultural bounty, and subsequent Norman (Viking) invaders often hired Arab chefs, further embedding Arabic culinary influences.

By the twelfth century, as Sicilian culinary expert Mary Taylor Simeti explains in her book Pomp and Sustenance, “Sicilian cooking once again was drawing its ingredients and its techniques from the entire Mediterranean basin, and could boast a degree of sophistication as yet unknown on the continent. Sicily was relegated to the margin of European history after the thirteenth century, but gastronomically it continued to export luxury to the north and at the same time to elaborate its own unique and varied culinary traditions.” These traditions continued to be shaped by subsequent conquests by the French and Spanish.

Today, some of Sicily’s favorite foods illustrate the delicious results that come from mixing the island’s signature ingredients in the melting-pot of so many cultural changes:

  • Arancine. These stuffed rice balls, coated in bread crumbs then fried, are a popular street food reflecting the Arabic taste for stuffed foods.
  • Farsumagru. Thin beef wrapped around meats, cheeses, eggs, and vegetables then sliced into rolls, this dish dates back to French chefs brought in by the Bourbon dynasty.
  • Pasta con le Sarde. Sardines, capers, pine nuts, and fennel top pasta. Pasta was likely introduced to Sicily (and then to mainland Italy) by the Arabs—not Marco Polo! There’s even a fishless variety of this dish, called pasta con le sarde a mare—pasta with the sardines gone to sea.
  • Caponata. A sweet and sour eggplant stew, caponata is one of many dishes that wouldn’t have existed without the Arabs’ introduction of eggplant. Pasta alla Norma is another Sicilian favorite, featuring pasta with fried eggplant cubes, tomato sauce, cheese, and toasted breadcrumbs. Eggplant often stands in for meat in frugal Sicilian dishes.
  • Pane con la Milza. Locals get dreamy-eyed when they mention this dish, but a street-food sandwich of veal spleen (or sometimes spleen, lung, and windpipe) may be beyond the daring of some visitors. This dish was thought to originate with the vibrant Jewish community that thrived in Palermo until the Spanish came to power.
  • Panella. These creamy inside, crispy outside chickpea-flour fritters flecked with parsley are another street-food favorite that also originated with the Arabs.
  • Tomato everything. New World ingredients including tomatoes, squash, peppers, beans, chocolate, and even prickly cactus were introduced while the island was ruled by Ferdinand and Isabella; today nearly every dish imaginable has at least one New World ingredient, and the city of Modica is known for its Mexican-style chocolate.

We invite you to explore the recipes below to get a taste of how typically Sicilian ingredients are used in this part of the Mediterranean. Or better yet, join us April 8-15 as Oldways travels to Sicily .

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipes.

Capers are the lifeblood of the diet in Pantelleria, Italy, an island between the coasts of Sicily and Tunisia. They are the main seasoning for this traditional salad. Serve it with fish.

Recipe Recipe and photo courtesy of  Elizabeth Minchilli .

Socca is a chickpea pancake or crepe served in France and Italy (where it is called “farinata”). The base of a socca is chickpea flour, which is high in protein and fiber (higher than white flour for equal servings) and is an excellent source of vitamin B-6, magnesium, and iron.

Recipe courtesy of Emilia Petrucci and Oldways.

Steaming mussels is an easy way to get fresh seafood on the table when time is short.

Recipe courtesy of the National Fisheries Institute . An Oldways photo.
Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.