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Cook Like a Sicilian

by
May 15th, 2020

Food is a great way to explore different cultures. Throughout history, food and drink have played major roles in our religions, lifestyles, activities, social life and family dynamics. Food is what brings people together, defines tradition, symbolizes significant moments and gives people something that is uniquely theirs. 

A bit about Sicily

Picture a map of the Mediterranean. You can see the northern coast of Africa, the western coast of Asia and the southern coast of Europe. What might stick out in your mind the most, though, is the characteristic Italian coast resembling the shape of a boot. If we’re talking about the Italian "boot" in the Mediterranean Sea, then Sicily is the triangular-shaped "ball" that the Italian boot is kicking. 

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and is also home to Europe’s tallest active volcano, Mount Etna. This hilly island has been home to humans since as early as 12,000 B.C., and it has since been occupied by the Phonecians, Greeks, Ostrogoths, North African Arabs, Byzantines and Spanish before officially becoming an autonomous part of Italy in 1860. 

Because of Sicily’s vast history of foreign occupation and cultural shifts, the island’s modern society is a true melting pot of culture and tradition. This is especially true when it comes to food, as many of the spices and flavorings used in traditional dishes have their roots in the nations that brought them to the island all those years ago. 

A Middle Eastern influence in Sicilian cuisine is best seen through the use of oranges, lemons, nutmeg, cloves, apricots, saffron, rice, sugar, cinnamon and almonds, just to name a few. Cultures of Middle East origin first brought over their spices, citrus and fruits when they conquered Sicily in the 10th and 11th centuries, and now citrus is the second-largest crop grown on the island today. Wheat is the largest crop type grown on the island and accounts for 10 percent of Italy’s wheat supply.

The fertile soil of the island and the warm climate create the perfect environment for crops to grow. The Spanish introduced tomatoes, cocoa and maize to Sicily after discovering them in the Americas, and Greek colonists brought with them their tastes for fish, olives and pistachios. Romans used Sicily as their granary for nearly 600 years after conquering the island in the early third century. The Romans are also responsible for introducing their many cheeses to Sicily, particularly goat milk ricotta cheese and cow milk caciocavallo cheese, both of which are Sicilian specialties today. 

Because of Sicily’s history of conquest, particularly by the Arabs and Spanish, Sicilian cuisine is unique and separate to that of its neighbor, Italy. 

Here are some traditional Sicilian recipes that you can make for yourself!

Pasta con le sarde

The Greeks’ love of sardines and the abundance of seafood around the island is portrayed well in this pasta dish. Fresh sardines sauteed with Middle Eastern ingredients like golden raisins, almonds and pine nuts make for the perfect pasta dish.

Here’s a great recipe for this traditional Sicilian dish!

Pasta alla norma

Fresh eggplant is used often in Sicilian cuisine. This pasta dish features chunks of eggplant with tomatoes, herbs and sheep’s cheese topped with ricotta. 

Here’s a recipe for pasta alla norma!

Couscous alla trapanese

“Cuscusu” could be considered one of the most popular Middle Eastern contributions to Sicilian cuisine. The western province of Trapani has heavy Middle Eastern influences and is the place to go for the most authentic Sicilian foods with a bent of the Middle East, hence the name “alla trapanese.” Couscous alla trapanese is often cooked in fish broth and served alongside seafood like shrimp or small fish. 

Here’s a recipe (and really cool history) for couscous alla trapanese!

Sarde a beccafico

Sardines are a hit in Sicily and are cooked in many different ways. In this dish, the sardines are sliced in half, butterfly-style, and are stuffed with pine nuts, breadcrumbs and raisins. The fish are then rolled up and baked between bay leaves or lemon slices.

Here’s a great recipe for sarde a beccafico!

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Oggi sarde a beccafico, un piatto della tradizione siciliana! Da dove il nome? I nobili siciliani un tempo mangiavano il beccafico, un uccellino, considerato una prelibatezza. Il popolo per imitare le abitudini dei ricchi, creò un piatto simile all'aspetto ma con ingredienti alla loro portata! Varie versioni, ma io che ormai pratico da 30 anni la cucina siciliana, le faccio così : dopo averle pulite, marino le sarde con limone, olio, sale e pepe. Rosolo la cipolla e in una ciotola aggiungo ad essa uva passa, pinoli, prezzemolo, punta di zucchero, buccia e succo d'arancia, pane grattugiato, sale e pepe. Metto questo ripieno sopra le sarde e le arrotolo su se stesse. Poi le metto in una teglia intercalandole con l'alloro. Filo d'olio e in forno per 10 minuti Ricche di acidi grassi omega 3, gli spazzini che ripuliscono le arterie e prevengono malattie cardiovascolari. In più potassio, fosforo, calcio e vitamina A! Una prelibatezza, ma anche salute a tavola! #sarde #sardeabeccafico #pesceazzurro #mangiaresano #mangiarebene # alimentazione sana #omega3 #malattiecardiovascolari #fosforo #arterie #alloro #uvetta # pinoli #arancia

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Gelato

The Arabs who conquered Sicily definitely brought their sweet tooth over to the island, and that is definitely apparent in the invention of gelato. In the hot summers, snow from the mountain top of Mount Etna was mixed with fruity syrups to create “sorbetto,” or sherbert. When mixed with milk or cream, this became gelato!

Here’s a recipe for Sicilian gelato that’s sure to cool your summer days.

Cannoli

Cannolis are popular in many Italian cuisines, but these sweet little tubes of joy are actually Sicilian in origin! These deep-fried pastry tubes are filled with ricotta cheese or, in some cases, mascarpone cheese. The ends of the cannoli are often dipped in chocolate shavings or chopped pistachio.

Here’s an easy recipe for making your very own Sicilian teatime treat!

Whether you’ve got Sicilian ancestors in your family or are simply curious about Sicilian foods, these authentic Sicilian recipes are sure to knock your socks off with flavor! Just think about all the history, culture and tradition that have shaped these foods you’re cooking, and see for yourself why this Mediterranean island is one of the tastiest islands you’ll ever visit!

Buon appetito!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/6657176

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

View All Posts by Colleen Ford
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