Arab Contributions to Sicilian Cuisine
by Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer
As we stared at the appetizing delicate sweets that filled the window of a Palermo pastry shop, my daughter turned to me saying: “Doesn’t this remind you of the dessert stalls in a Moroccan or Tunisian marketplace?” I had no quarrel with her observation for almost all the pastries and many of the other dishes of Sicily have an Arab origin. The Arabs/Muslims have left the legacy of their cuisine, especially mouth-watering sweets, in all the Mediterranean countries they once called home.
The cuisine of Italy of which the Sicilian cooking forms a major part came into being due to the influences left by nations and empires such as the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and others. All had a hand in the formation of the foods of Sicily and Italy in all their regional varieties.
However, it was the Arabs who left the greatest imprint on the cuisine of Sicily – the largest Italian island. Their foods have impregnated Sicily’s cuisine with an unmistakable Arab touch. During their 250-year rule of the island – they arrived in the early 9th century – the Arabs left their stamp on all aspects of life. Walking the narrow and winding streets, better to do so during the day, of the historic Kalsa, from Arabic al-khalisah: the pure, one cannot but envision the hustle and bustle of Arab society in this once Arab quarter.
By the 10th century the Arabs had made Sicily the ‘Bride of the Mediterranean’. In the fields of architecture, education, industry, commerce and especially agriculture, Sicily became the showplace of Europe. Palermo, which they made their capital, grew into a city of great luxury and a centre of Islamic civilization.
When the Normans conquered the island towards the end of the 11th century, they were dazzled by the sophistication of the civilization they found. The Normans adopted many customs and institutions from their predecessors, particularly in the field of architecture, civil service, literature, dress and food, creating a unique blend of Christian-Islamic culture. Palermo’s Cappella Palatina, the royal chapel of the Norman kings, built by Roger II, for example, reflects the fusion of the two in its decoration of medallions bearing Kufic inscriptions and its Arab arches. The Palermo Cathedral with its Gothic portico bearing unique Arabic inscriptions and the Fatimid style Castello di Zisa (from Arabic – al-caziz: the noble) and La Cuba Palace host Arab gardens that attest to the history of Arab rule.
In the Muslim era, agriculture flourished, as it never had before the Arab conquest or after their demise. Countless new plants were introduced and less than a century after the conquest Sicily became known as the ‘Garden Island of Southern Europe’.
The Arabs brought with them citrus fruits and cultivated them on a wide scale. Lemon (Italian limone from the Arabic laymun) and orange (arancia from the Arabic al-naranjah) orchards were to be found in all parts of the island. Today, they are so widespread that the aroma of their flowers, which still carry an Arabic name, zàgara, originally Arabic zahr, hovers over every path and road.
From the repertoire of plants found in their former homelands, the Arabs also introduced into the island, among others, a great number of the fruits, spices and vegetables, many of which still carry their Arab names. Buckwheat (Italian saraceno), from the Arabic sharqiyin (of the east) and saffron (zafferano – Arabic za’faran); are two of these food plants.
In the field of Sicilian culinary arts, the Muslims had a profound effect. They infused the island’s cuisine with an unmistakable Arab touch. The rich foods of the Middle East, candied fruits and stuffed vegetables, new methods of preserving food, the drying of fruits and vegetables and the art of distillation were some of the contributions made by the Arabs to the Sicilian kitchen and, to some extent , the cuisine of the whole of Italy.
Today, the island’s dishes are more adventurous than the ones to be found in the remainder of Italy. They are spicier and sweeter than those of the mainland – even pasta is made piquant.
Dessert-making is, perhaps, the most important contribution made by these eastern conquerors to Sicilian cuisine. When the Arabs introduced sugar to the island they made possible a whole series of desserts such as cassata, cannoli, cubbaita and torrone. They also brought sweets made from almonds, and the art of making ice cream and sherbet into Sicily. From the island these spread to the remainder of Italy, then to all of Europe. Today, such Sicilian foods as Cύscusa (Semolina and Fish Soup), Pesto Trapanese (Spaghetti with Almonds), and Pasta con le Sarde (Macaroni with Sardines) are reminders of the Arab past.
From the inherited kitchen developed in these medieval centuries, Sicily today is filled with outdoor markets especially in Palermo, which are saturated with outdoor eating places. To onlookers, their striking similarity to the old souks of Cairo or Damascus is obvious. Roaming through the Palermo markets of Capo and Ballaro we sampled their many foods. From among these were: Arancina, a type of deep-fried stuffed rice ball, one of the most popular street foods in Sicily; Sfincione a type of pizza topped with tomato sauce, and onions and Pani ca Meusa, spleen boiled in, a oil and served with cheese and other tidbits – all street food much loved by hungry travellers and Sicilians alike.
Yet even though street food entices locals and tourists Palermo offers in its 802 restaurants world class dishes, a good number with Arab roots. My favourite places to go are two traditional Sicilian restaurants, Il Mirto e la Rosa, always full of locals and with a friendly and pleasant atmosphere; and Gagini Restaurant, considered to be the first ‘social restaurant’ in Palermo, a place where you can eat and discuss the world. Specializing in all types of seafood and traditional Sicilian desserts, a visitor cannot go wrong dining in this culinary jewel of Palermo.
From the large storehouse of Sicilian foods of Arab origin we have selected a few dishes to tantalize the lovers of the exotic. These recipes have been modified somewhat to return them to their origin, yet, fit them into the culinary world of the 21st century.
Semolina and Fish Soup – Cúscusa
Serves 10 to 12
Cúscusa is famous in the Trapani region of Sicily that abounds in recipes, mostly dealing with fish, going back to the Arab era. By using instant couscous it becomes a simple dish to make.
2 cups uncooked instant couscous
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 pounds fish fillet, cut into 2-inch cubes
4 cloves garlic, crushed
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves
1 hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped
4 tablespoons tomato paste, dissolved in 1/2 cup water
5 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon black pepper
6 bay leaves
Prepare couscous according to package directions then place in serving dish and set aside but keep warm.
In a saucepan, heat oil, then sauté over medium heat the onions and fish for 10 minutes, gently turning the fish pieces over a few times. Stir in garlic, coriander (cilantro) leaves and hot pepper, then sauté for further 4 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, then bring to boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes, then place in a serving bowl.
Serve soup and couscous separately, with each person adding couscous to taste, or stir in couscous into the soup and serve.
Spaghetti with Almonds – Pesto Trapanese
Serves about 6
This was a very popular dish in medieval Arab cooking and in the cuisine of the Italian Renaissance.
6 cloves of garlic
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1 cup blanched almonds, coarsely ground
4 medium ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 pound spaghetti
Place all ingredients, except spaghetti, in a blender then blend for few moments to make a sauce. Set aside.
Cook spaghetti according to directions, then drain. Place in a serving bowl, then combine thoroughly with sauce and serve.
Macaroni with Sardines – Pasta con le Sarde
Serves about 8
Considered to be of Arab origin, versions of this recipe are found in the western part of Sicily where most of the Arab Muslims settled.
1 large bunch fennel green
3 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 quarts water
1/2 cup olive oil
1 pound fresh sardines, cleaned, then heads and tails removed
1 large onion finely chopped
1 cup pine nuts
4 tablespoons raisins, soaked in warm water until they turn plump, then drained
1 small can anchovies ( 1.75 oz 50 g), chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste, dissolved in 2 cups warm water along
with 3/4 teaspoons saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 pound macaroni
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup toasted bread crumbs
Place fennel green, salt and water in a saucepan, then bring to boil. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes then remove with slotted spoon. Reserve fennel water. Finely chop fennel, then set aside.
Heat oil in a frying pan, then fry sardines until they turn golden brown. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside.
In same oil, sauté onions over medium heat for 6 minutes, adding more oil if necessary, then stir in pine nuts, raisins, anchovies, and tomato paste mixture, then bring to boil. Simmer for 10 minutes then stir in fennel and sardines to make a sauce. Add pepper and remaining salt then set aside.
Bring fennel water to boil then cook macaroni until done. Drain and place in a serving bowl, then, just before serving, stir in sauce, lemon juice and bread crumbs. Serve immediately.
Almond Clusters – Confetti
This candy is believed to be one of the first sweets introduced by the Arabs into southern Europe.
1 cup almonds, blanched
4 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
In a frying pan, place almonds, butter and sugar, then, stirring constantly over medium heat, cook for about 7 to 8 minutes or until the sugar becomes candy-like and golden in colour. Test for this by dropping a 1/4 teaspoon of the mixture in a glass of cold water – it should form a soft round ball.
Stir in the vanilla, then spread on a greased tray. Allow to cool, then break into pieces and serve or store.