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The Arabo-Sicula Cuisine of Sicily

 

Recipes Below

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Some Arab words taken directly into the Sicilian language, most having to do with food (courtesy of the Lingua Sicilian site):

  • azzizzri from aziz meaning to adorn or decorate
  • babbalciu babush meaning snail
  • balta from balt meaning a large stone plate
  • brgiu from burg meaning a pail of hay or straw
  • burna from burnya meaning a jar to conserve food in
  • cafsu from qafiz meaning a measure of oil
  • clia from haliah meaning roasted chickpeas
  • gbbia from gibja or giabiya meaning basin or tub
  • sami from schaim meaning fat or grease
  • scirra from sciara meaning to fight or argue
  • tabbtu from tabut meaning coffin
  • taliari from talayi meaning a place from which you can spy down on others
  • zotta from sawt meaning whip or whisk
  • zuccu from suq meaning a tree sucker or a shoot that grows low on the trunk that needs to be removed

 

 

 

And some words that came into Italian via Sicilian via Arabic (again, courtesy of the Lingua Sicilian site):

  • arancia meaning orange, in Sicilian arncia, in Arabic narangi
  • azzurro meaning blue, in Sicilian azzrru, in Arabic lazwardi (blue coloring came from lapis lazuli and was used in Arab tile art)
  • cotone meaning cotton, in Sicilian cuttni, in Arabic qutun
  • limone meaning lemons, in Sicilian limni, in Arabic limun
  • magazzino meaning warehouse, in Sicilian magasnu, in Arabic makahzan, and plural makahzin
  • meschino poor, mean or paltry, in Sicilian mischnu, in Arabic miskin
  • zafferano meaning saffron, in Sicilian zafarnu, in Arabic zafaran
  • zucchero meaning sugar, in Sicilian zccaru, in Arabic sukkar

 

 

 

Arab cuisine from the time of the colonization of Sicily featured all these things that today we think of as typically Sicilian.

  • meatballs and sausages
  • meat patties (polpette, polpettone)
  • mint
  • saffron
  • almond milk and almond cream
  • clove (garofano), cinnamon (canella)
  • wild fennel (finocchietto selvatico)
  • citrus fruit
  • rice dishes like risotto
  • pasta, especially vermicelli
  • bean and oil dishes
  • salads / spreads
  • couscous (cuscus)
  • marzipan sweets
  • cannoli
  • artichokes (carciofi)
  • eggplant dishes (melanzane)
  • sheep, lamb and goat cheeses
  • eggplant dishes
  • chickpeas and lentils
  • ice creams and ices (granite)
  • cakes and cookies
  • pistachios, almonds and pine nuts
  • nut sugar candies
  • fried sweets
  • sweet and sour dishes (agrodolce)

 

 

 

Dishes from Arab cuisine can be found in traditional Italian cuisine, too, sometimes having arrived via Sicily, sometimes via direct contact between cooks from Arab regions and Italy, especially from Arab Spain, Al Andalus.

  • calzone and pizza
  • fresh and dried pastas
  • marmalades
  • panettone
  • cannoli
  • pan forte
  • marzipan
  • gelato
  • biscotti

 

 

 

Many of the Arabic words that have come to English have to do with food, too (courtesy of Al-Bab Arabic Language site):

  • alcohol
  • alfalfa
  • apricot
  • artichoke
  • aubergine
  • camphor
  • candy
  • carafe
  • caraway
  • carob
  • coffee
  • cumin
  • elixir
  • halva
  • jar
  • lemon
  • lime
  • marzipan
  • orange
  • rice
  • saffron
  • scallion
  • sesame
  • sherbet
  • spinach
  • sugar
  • sultana
  • sumac
  • syrup
  • tamarind
  • tangerine
  • tarragon

 

 

 

827 A.D. is the year that is given to the beginning of the Arab (Berber and Persian) conquest, or colonization of Sicily.  By the year 841 they had taken Palermo and made it their capital of the Island.  In the year 878, Syracuse, the Greek capital of the island, was taken and destroyed.  By 965 the colonization of Sicily was complete.  It was the Emirate of Sicily.

Then, for about 100 years (the last town fell to the Normans in 1091) there was growth, peace and prosperity.  At its peak, Palermo boasted 300 mosques and 300,000 inhabitants.  Sicily boasted intellectuals who advanced science, linguistics, literature and law.  But it was most famous for the beautiful poetry written in Arabic by the court poets.

 

 

 Under Arab rule, Sicily developed large irrigation projects that allowed the planting of Arab imports like sugar cane, rice, sesame, jasmine, cinnamon, saffron, anise, cotton, hemp, henna, linen, date palms, and citrus fruit trees. 

Sicily became part of the vast trade route that brought spices from the Far East, and foodstuffs from all around the Mediterranean, to as far away as the Atlantic Ocean (Morocco, and parts of Spain and Portugal were also under Arab rule).

But that is only part of the reason the cuisine took hold so strongly.  The main reason was that the cuisine was so good.  It was based on the very old cuisine of the ancient Persians (from at least 900 B.C.) and embellished with recipes from all the lands visited or conquered by the Arabs.

 

 

For example, Sicily was famous, even before the Arabs arrived, for her cheeses.  There are Sicilian cheeses mentioned in ancient Greek texts, and later, incorporated into Arab recipes.  Cheeses were, and still are, made from cow, sheep and goat milk, pure and in combinations, coagulated with goat rennin, seasoned with peppers or seeds or plain, formed into various shapes, and some are even cooked after curing to give the cheese a smoked flavor.  For an amazing catalog of Sicilian cheeses available today, visit the Prodotti Tipici Siciliani.

Up to today, the cuisine and ingredients introduced to Sicily by the Arab colonizers have remained basic to what we think of as Sicilian food.  There are obvious recipes that come directly from Arab cuisine, such as couscous dishes, and ones that are called 'alla saracena', which means 'in the manner of the Saracens' or 'Arabs'.

 

 

 

 

But there are many more less obvious recipes.  Below are some recipes from the various courses of a meal, a tradition first used in Arab Spain (Al Andalus).  I give the Sicilian recipe (many are from the wonderful site Sicilia in Festa), and then, for fun, sometimes I give the old, middle-ages, Arab recipe.

I use as a source for the Arab recipes an ancient Al Andalus cookbook, from the 13th century, that records recipes in use throughout the Arab world since at least the year 900.  I feature it on a page on this site and offer it as a free PDF book.

 

 

One recipe in the book, which was copied by a scribe from various other cookbooks from that era and earlier, is a called 'A Sicilian Dish', and is a mildly spicy meat and onion dish, 1 part meat to 3 parts onion.  The omelet type topping is typical of the period, as are the added meatballs and saffron coloring.  Golden dishes were considered good luck.

 

 

A Sicilian Dish (13th century)

Take fat meat from the chest, the shoulder, the ribs, and the other parts [usually assumes mutton or lamb], in the amount of a ratl [1 ratl=468g/1lb] and a half.  Put it in a pot with a little water and salt and some three ratls [1 ratl=468g/1lb] of onions.

Then put it on a moderate fire, and when the onion is done and the meat has "returned," throw in four spoonfuls of oil, pepper, cinnamon, Chinese cinnamon [cassia], spikenard, and meatballs. Finish cooking it.

When the meat is done, cover it with eggs beaten with saffron, or you might leave it without a covering, as you wish, [and cook it either] in the [public bread] oven or at home.

 

 

 

 

Antipasti

Recipe for Fried Eggplant and Cheese Snacks

1 eggplant, one scamorza cheese, about 12 sage leaves, some flour, 2 eggs, frying oil, salt

Slice the eggglant into thin rounds, then cut the rounds into quarters like a pie slice.  Cut the scamorza cheese in the same manner so you have half as many pieces of the hard cheese shaped like the eggplant pieces.

 Sandwich each cheese slice between two slices of eggplant.  Wrap around each of the sandwiches a sage leaf and secure with a toothpick.

Dip the snacks in beaten egg, then dust them with flour.  Repeat this process if necessary to coat them well.  Then fry them in hot oil for a few minutes.  Drain them on paper, then serve them immediately.
 
Recipe for Sprinkled [batter-fried] Eggplants (13th Century)

Take sweet ones [eggplants] and split in strips crosswise or lengthwise and boil gently. Then take out of the water and leave to drain and dry a little.

Then take white flour and beat with egg, pepper, coriander, saffron and a little murri naq [use soy sauce]. When it is like thick soup, put those eggplants in it [to coat them] and fry [them] with oil in the hot pan. Brown them. Then immerse them [in the batter] and do a second time [fry them] and a third [immerse and cook].

Primi asciutti

Rice with Milk and Sweet Chestnuts

350 grams of rice, 300 grams of sweet chestnuts, 70 grams of butter, 1 litre of milk, 1 shallot, a laurel leaf, fennel seeds, salt and pepper

Boil the sweet chestnuts for 5-8 minutes.  Then peel them of the shell and skin, and dice them.  Melt 50 grams of butter in a pan.  Add the finely chopped shallot, a teaspoon of fennel seeds, and the laurel leaf.  Cook until the shallot dissolves.

Add the rice and stir as it cooks with the mixture for a few minutes.  Then add the milk and the diced chestnuts.  Bring it to a boil then lower the heat so it simmers.  Add salt and pepper and continue cooking the rice, stirring it often, until it is cooked.  Then add the remaining 20 grams of butter.  Serve immediately.

Preparation of Rice Cooked Over Water [in a double boiler] (13th Century)

Take rice washed with hot water and put it in the pot and throw to it fresh, pure milk fresh from milking. Put this pot in a copper kettle that has water up to the halfway point or a little more [in a double boiler, bain-marie]. Arrange the copper kettle on the fire and the pot with the rice and milk well-settled in it so that it doesn't tip and is kept from the fire. Leave it to cook without stirring.

When the milk has dried up, add more of the same kind of milk so that the rice dissolves and is ready [add milk and cook until the rice is done]. Add to it fresh butter and cook the rice with it.

When the rice is done and dissolved, take off the pot and stir it with a spoon until it loosens. Then throw it on the platter and level it [forming a round loaf]. Sprinkle it with ground sugar, cinnamon and butter and use.

With this same recipe one cooks itriyya [dried pasta], fidaush [fresh pasta] and thard al-laban [milk bread pudding].

 

Zuppe

Meatballs in a Lemon Broth

300 grams of ground lamb meat, two mint stalks, a bunch of basil, salt and pepper, 20 grams of butter, 1 clove of garlic, 1 small onion, 1/2 lemon, 400 grams of zucchini, 1 litre of broth

Mix the meat with the chopped mint and a few chopped basil leaves and season with salt and pepper.  Make meatballs of the mixture.

Melt the butter in a pan and add the chopped garlic and onion.  Cook it slowly.  Add the rest of the chopped basil and the juice of the lemon and it's chopped rind.  Cook a minute, then add the finely chopped zucchini.  Cook a minute, then add the broth. 

Bring the broth to a boil, season with salt and pepper, and add the meatballs.  Cook until the meatballs are done.  You can add soup rice to the dish too, if you wish.

Preparation of Meatballs from Any Meat You Wish (13th Century)

Take meat cleaned of tendons and add to it some fat and pound all until it becomes like brains, and pick out its tendons.  And throw on it murri [use soy sauce], oil, spices and onions pounded with cilantro and salt, or the juices of this, and some fine flour, a little water and eggs.  Pound all until mixed.  Put a pot of broth on the fire, and when it boils, throw into it meatballs and cook until done.  Take out and serve, God willing.  And if it is fried in a pan with oil, it is also good, God willing.

 

Secondi carne

Stove-Top Chicken

1.2 kilo chicken cut in pieces, 1 small onion, 4 cloves of fresh garlic, 30 grams of crushed pine nuts, 3 slices of bread, parsley, olive oil, salt and pepper, water

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan.  Add the chopped garlic and onion and let it cook a bit.  Add the chicken pieces, season with salt and pepper and let them cook for 10 minutes.

Grind together the bread and pine nuts with a tablespoon of oil.  Add this mixture to the chicken.  Add the chopped parsley.  Mix well.  Add boiling water to cover the chicken.  Cover the pot and let it cook over a low heat for 30 minutes, or until tender.

Remove the cover and continue cooking to let the liquid evaporate until the sauce is thick.

Recipe for Murziyya (13th Century)

It is one of the dishes of Africa and the country of Egypt.

Take a cleaned hen, cut it up with what is mentioned for zrabja, [a little salt, pepper, coriander, cinnamon, saffron and sufficient of vinegar and fresh oil.]

And when it is done, add "cow's eyes" [prunes] infused in vinegar and oil, and also jujubes and split almonds, and you might make it thickened with peeled, pounded almonds [with water].

[In al-Andalus it is called "al-`asami," the color of dark amber.  In Marrakesh it is the dish for `Id al-kabir.]

 

Dolci

Sicilian Cannoli

For the filling:  ricotta, sugar (can be powdered sugar), candied fruit, pieces of chocolate.  For the shell:  500 grams of flour, two egg yolks, 25 grams of alcohol, 20 grams of suet fat, wine, and suet fat for frying. 

For the shell:  Knead together the flour, fat, yolks, alcohol and enough of the wine until you have a firm dough.  Let it sit for 1/2 hour.  Then roll it out to a thickness of 2-3 millimeters and cut out circles about 10 centimeters in diameter.  Wrap the dough around the cannoli forms.  The forms were once made of sugar cane but are today available in stainless steel.  Deep fat fry them in suet fat.  When they are golden, remove from the fat and let them cool on absorbent paper.  Then remove the cannoli from the cannelli.

For the filling:  Mix together the ricotta with the sugar to taste.  Pass it through a sieve or mix it in a mixer to get a creamy paste.  Add the fruit and chocolate and mix well. 

Fill the cannoli with the filling.  Flatten the ends of the filling and cover them with chopped almonds.  Cover the cannoli with powdered sugar.

Stuffed Qannt, Fried Cannoli [cannoli shells and marzipan filling] (13th Century)

Pound almond and walnut, pine nuts and pistachio very small. Pound [sugar] fine and mix with the almond, the walnut and the rest. Add to the paste pepper, cinnamon, Chinese cinnamon [cassia] and spikenard. Knead with the necessary amount of skimmed honey [to bind it together] and put in the dough whole pine nuts, cut pistachio and almond. Mix it all and then stuff the qananit [the shells] that you have made of clean wheat flour.

Its Preparation [of the shells]. Knead fine white flour with oil and make thin breads with it and fry them in oil. [Or in more detail] Knead the dough well with oil and a little saffron and roll it into thin flatbreads. Stretch them over the tubes [qananit] of cane [cannoli tubes], and you cut them [the cane sections] how you want them, little or big. And throw them [into a frying pan full of oil], after wrapping them around the reed. [When cooked and cooled] Take them out from around the reed.

Stuff them [the shells] with the stuffing and put in their ends whole pistachios and pine nuts, one at each end, and lay it aside. He who wants his stuffing with sugar or chopped almond, it will be better, if God wishes.

[The name comes from the plural of "qanut" which means canes or cylinders. These cannoli are thinner than many of todays massive cannoli. These are more bite-sized bits, probably no thicker than a finger.]

 

Confetture

Quince Paste

1 kilo of quince, 1 lemon, 1.2 kilos of sugar, 1 litre water

Clean, de-seed and dice the quince.  Put in a pot with the water and the juice of the lemon and put over a low heat.  Boil until the fruit is completely soft.  Push it all through a sieve, or mix in a mixer, to make it a homogenous paste.

Then add to it the sugar and put it back on the heat for 10 minutes, stirring continually.  Pour the mixture into the appropriate forms, moistened with water or oil.  Or you can pour it onto a platter, or loaf form.  Leave until set.

Quince Paste [quince jam and jelly] (13th Century)

Take a ratl [1 ratl=468g/1lb] of quince, cleaned of its seeds and cut into small pieces. Pound it well until it is like brains [or grate it]. Cook it with three ratls [1 ratl=468g/1lb] of honey, cleaned of its foam [heated and skimmed], until it takes the form of a paste.

It is also made by another, more amazing recipe: take it as said before, and cook it in water alone until its essence comes out. Clean the water of its sediments, and add it to an equal amount of sugar. Make it thin and transparent, without redness [cook it until it lightens and thickens, and what you have made will remain in this state [a jelly].

Its benefits: it lightens the belly that suffers from bile, it suppresses bitterness in the mouth, and excites the appetite. And I say it keeps bad vapors from rising from the stomach to the brain [indigestion].

Marzipan

Pasta Reale (Royal Paste) - Sicilian Marzipan

1 kilo ground almonds, 1 kilo sugar, vanilla, 250 grams water

Boil the sugar with the water until it becomes candied, makes a string between the fingers, or makes a ball in water, or use a candy thermometer.  Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla flavoring and the ground almonds.  Turn it out onto a wet or oiled marble slab and let it cool.  Then knead it until it is a smooth and compact.  Shape and decorate into bit-sized pieces.

Sanbsak [marzipan figures] (13th Century)

It used to be made in Marrakesh in the house of the Prince of the Believers, Abu Yusuf al-Mansur, God have mercy upon him.

Take white sugar and dissolve it and mix it with rosewater. Then put in almonds pounded like dough, and stir it gently until it is combined and becomes like the filling of a qahiriyya [like marzipan].

Then take it from the fire, and when it is lukewarm, put in spikenard, cloves, a little ginger, and a small amount of mastic, after first dissolving these ground spices in rosewater in which has already been dissolved some camphor, musk and cut almonds. Beat all this and knead it until one part blends with the other.

Make rounds of the size of kaks [biscuits, cookies] and make balls in the shape of oranges and resembling apples and pears, until the marzipan is used up.  It is delicious, and it is called sanbsak in the East, and it is the sanbsak of kings.

[This marzipan is a bit spicier and has camphor and musk in it along with chopped almonds. Today, these sorts of figures are dried and painted with food colorings to resemble the shapes they mimic.]

 

Bevande

Rose Water and Syrup

200 grams of boiling water, 200 grams of rose petals, 2 teaspoons of lemon juice

Put the rose petals in a container you can seal hermetically.  Then pour over them boiling water and the lemon juice.  Stir well.  Seal the container and leave for at least 12 hours.  Then filter the water and use.

To store it for longer, you must make a syrup of it.  Add 200 grams of sugar and boil it until the sugar dissolves.  Store it in a hermetically sealed container.

Syrup of Fresh Roses, and the Recipe for Making It (13th Century)

Take a ratl [1 ratl=468g/1lb] of fresh roses, after removing the dirt from them, and cover them with just boiled water for a day and a night, until the water cools and the roses fall apart in the water. Filter it and take the clean part of it.

[To make the syrup] add to it a ratl [1 ratl=468g/1lb] of sugar.  Cook all this until it takes the form of a syrup.

Drink an qiya [1 qiya=39g/7tsp] of this with two of hot water.  Its benefits are at the onset of dropsy [swelling from water, edema], and it fortifies the stomach and the liver and the other internal organs, and lightens the constitution; in this it is admirable.

 

Creme

Pastry Cream

2 egg yolks, 3 tablespoons of sugar, 2 tablespoons of flour, salt, grated rind of 1/2 of a lemon, 1/2 liter milk

In a pot, mix the yolks with the sugar, salt and lemon rind.  Add a bit of the milk and mix well.  Put over a low fire, or in a bain-marie (double-boiler) and cook while adding the milk gradually, mixing continually.  Let it boil for about 5 minutes, while mixing.

White Fldhaja With Milk; It is Eastern [sweet pudding] (13th Century)

Take a ratl [1 ratl=468g/1lb] and a half of fresh milk and put it in a tinjir on a gentle fire. Add one quarter ratl [1 ratl=468g/1lb] of diluted starch paste and one ratl [1 ratl=468g/1lb] of fresh oil. Stir it and then add two ratls [1 ratl=468g/1lb] of pounded white sugar and stir it until it is done. Put it into a clean clay dish and serve it.

 

Visit the Sicilia in Festa site for lots of great recipes in Italian.

For recipes in English visit the Italian Food at About.com.

Food writer Clifford A. Wright's website.  He specializes in Mediterranean food, cooking and recipes.

Capacity
1 ml = 1/5 teaspoon
5 ml = 1 teaspoon
15 ml = 1 tablespoon
34 ml = 1 fluid oz.
100 ml = 3.4 fluid oz.
240 ml = 1 cup
1 liter = 34 fluid oz.
1 liter = 4.2 cups
1 liter = 2.1 pints
1 liter = 1.06 quarts
1 liter = .26 gallon
Weight
1 gram = .035 ounce
100 grams = 3.5 ounces
500 grams = 1.10 pounds
1 kilogram = 2.205 pounds
1 kilogram = 35 oz.

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