Sicilian history: from conquerors to gastronomic excellences in the world
The history of Sicily is full of historical events, dominations and cultural traditions which for millennia have followed one another and have contributed to build the identity of the island and of its inhabitants.
An identity which has been inevitably transferred in the gastronomic culture as well and which has led to the birth of countless dishes which have become excellence and symbols of Sicily in the world. Sicilian cooking is the result of Sicilian history: a cuisine rich in recipes, in imports of products and customs, in mixes of ingredients, of aromas and spices coming from the East and the West of the world.
It is said that it is impossible to know a place thoroughly without having first known its gastronomy and its typical products. Knowing them means immersing oneself in the local culture, it means experiencing the place through all five senses. So let’s start by telling you this story of Sicily in order to make you immerse in a unique taste experience and discover where the most famous and good dishes of Sicilian cuisine come from.
Sicilian history, crossroads of people and enogastronomical traditions from all over the world
Sicily is a polychrome, eclectic, multicultural, multicolored land. Simply unique. There are many people who have chosen it for its strategic location, for its perfectly mild climate, for its varied and productive territory. At the center of the continents, easily accessible by sea, Sicily has become since the time of the Phoenicians a raw jewel to be transformed into a diamond. And so it was.
Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Aragonese are some of the people who have populated and embellished the island with works of art, architectural works and even gastronomic works.
Sicilian cuisine is a “scenic” cuisine, because its flourishing past and its welcoming nature have forged its identity and its essence, dressed with the thousand colors that different civilizations have brought.
Sicilian cuisine is the result of millennia of dominations. Perfectly in the heart of the Mediterranean, once the center of the world, the gastronomy is enriched with flavors and ancient recipes, often modified by new conquerors, which have come down to us.
Every time we taste a Sicilian dish, we must remember that it is a memory from the past, to be jealously guarded together with the tradition that accompanies it.
Land of sea and ancient fishing villages, the strong point of Sicilian cooking is undoubtedly fish. But not only.
The street food: colors and scents that inebriate the streets of the city center
In Palermo as well as in Catania, street food tells centuries of history and reveals its most hidden secrets. In the crowd of the center of Palermo, for example, in front of the counter of Francu u’ Vastiddaru or at the itinerant stall of Basile alla Vucciria, the most ancient traditions resurface, the ones that made it so famous and loved all over the world.
In the historical center, you can fully immerse yourself in an authentic taste experience, among the noises of the urban center, the barking of the street vendors, the bright colors and the intoxicating smells coming from the kitchens of the restaurants and markets.
Street food has become a symbol of tradition and culture, not only gastronomic. Especially in the historic centers of large cities, it is impossible not to linger on the countless outdoor restaurants that welcome passers-by with succulent “ready-to-eat” dishes.
Here, street food is tasted first with the eyes, then with the hands and finally with the palate, but it does not end with a simple taste experience. Street food in Palermo is a collective moment, an instrument of sociality, participation and sharing.
Even the most renowned restaurants now serve street food to tourists at all hours of the day and night. From arancine abburro e accarne to fried cod, from sfincione to cannoli, from roasted chestnuts in autumn to grattatella in summer.
Where does street food come from?
Although street food is a neologism of English matrix, entered in our daily vocabulary some years ago, the so called “street food” has a much more ancient origin.
Street food already existed at the time of Greeks and Romans, with the classic fried fish still sold in the streets of Rome. It also existed in the Middle East, with what we now consume in many of the places of western and eastern Sicily: the kebab. We have inherited from the Arabs the culture of tasting food in crowded places, of passage, where a simple street becomes the space of the community.
Street food is a purely cultural factor, a modus vivendi, a lifestyle that is difficult to deprive ourselves of. With its intense aromas and strong, spicy flavors, anyone who knows it for the first time is enraptured by Sicilian street food.
Sicilian Cooking: the heritage of Greeks and Byzantines
The Greeks colonized Sicily between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, settling mainly on the eastern side of the island and along the northern and southern coast. From Naxos to Syracuse, from Catania to Messina and Agrigento.
From a gastronomic point of view, Greeks greatly contributed to the definition of Sicilian cuisine, especially from the point of view of the experience of taste, cooking and serving food. Moreover, they brought to the island the art of wheat and wine production. They improved the cultivation techniques in the vineyards, they brought graniculture, they imported oregano, dried fruits, honey and even olive trees.
Sicilian cooking became an art thanks to the pen of Epicurus Siracusa and Socrates and from them we learned it was made of simple foods, often poor, but certainly genuine. Moreover, the first cookbook of history was created in the Greek poleis in Sicily, in particular by the cook and writer Miteco Siculo who wrote a real and proper cookbook.
The main ingredient was fish, a bit like it is today, as well as seasoning products such as oil, salt, vinegar and aromatic herbs.
The cuisine of Greeks was varied, just like Sicilian cuisine is today, with soups, eggs, fish and meat dishes, legumes and fresh cheese, olives, sweets made of honey, dried fruit and focaccia bread. Even the culture of serving sweets on trays, at the end of the meal, is a custom inherited by Greeks, who gave sweets and wine a great importance in every banquet.
Moreover, ancient Greeks ate laganon, an unleavened bread, baked and cut in strips, probably ancestor of Sicilian tagliatelle.
Byzantines, instead, imported and used cinnamon and cloves, but not only. They were the ones who improved cheese making and brought to the table cheeses different from salted ricotta and seasoned caciocavallo, such as fresh cheese seasoned with hot pepper.
The imprint of Arabs in Sicilian cooking
Sicilian cooking was strongly influenced by Arabs, who contributed to bringing customs and traditions, introducing new dishes and new products and giving birth to gastronomical excellences today famous all over the world.
First of all, it is believed that the culture and the making of pasta were introduced by Arabs in Sicily and then, from here, pasta spread all over Europe. The origin of pasta has not been proved yet and it is just a supposition, but Arabs certainly contributed to the development of the culture of pasta and to the production of different types of this dish, such as spaghetti.
A curiosity is about the delicious Sicilian dish of Pasta mare e monti. The story goes that a cook of Arab origin had to prepare some dishes for the army in Syracuse and he had to make do with the ingredients he had at his disposal such as fish and wild fennel.
With the Arabs arrived on the island also citrus fruits, rice, spices and sugar cane, as well as meat dishes such as bread with spleen and chickpeas, hence the panelle. A special mention, however, goes to them for sweets thanks to the introduction of marzipan and almond paste, the main ingredient of Sicilian desserts such as cassata.
Then, the realization of neviere all over the island for the production of sorbet (sharbat) from which granita was born. And how not to mention cannolo? The famous Sicilian sweet born in the Harem of Kalt El Nissa (Caltanissetta).
Sicilian Cooking: from Normans to Aragoneses
To the Normans, who reached the island of Sicily from northern Europe, goes the merit of having introduced the richest and most tasty dishes of the Sicilian gastronomic tradition based on meat and fish, such as those based on game, stockfish and the “a ghiotta di Messina“.
But not only. If the origin of cassata al forno (qas’at) coincides with the Arab domination and with the importation of products such as almonds and sugar cane, it is during the Norman period that the colorful traditional cassata that the world envies to Sicily comes to life.
According to most of the sources, almond paste was processed by the nuns of the Martorana Convent, adjacent to the church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio in Palermo. It is not by chance that today one of the sweets made of almond paste, or real paste as it is called in Sicily, is the Frutta Martorana.
It is due to the presence of Aragonese and to the Spanish influence, instead, the introduction of important ingredients of Sicilian gastronomical tradition, such as Indian spices, peppers, tomatoes or cocoa, undisputed protagonist of Modica chocolate.
In this period were born the delicious ‘mpanate which derive from Spanish empanadas and the variants from Catania such as scacce.
Sicilian history and Sicilian cooking, a tasty match
We can say that the history of contaminations has never ended. From century to century, decade to decade, Sicilian cuisine dishes have evolved, have been modified and elaborated creating new delicious combinations and new dishes.
This varied and eclectic nature can also be seen in the numerous dishes which, from province to province, change for some ingredient or have different names. One thing is for sure: Sicilian history is unique, as well as its cuisine.