What are we talking about, when we discuss “Italian food?” It’s the age-old question: Italian vs. Italian American. We get so caught up in the details of what the difference is between the food of Italy and the food developed by Italy’s immigrants that we often forget about the behemoth of cuisine that sits just at the toe of Italy’s boot: Sicily.
Sicilian food is contradictory, just like Sicilian culture. It is an odd mixture of Italian, Greek, Arab, French, Spanish, and North African. Its dinner plates are living odes to the number of peoples that have conquered, colonized, settled, ruled, and emigrated here. Every region in Italy has its own unique culinary traditions, but to lump Sicilian food under the over-arching category of “Italian food” does a disservice to this island’s culture and proud history.
The first recorded example of Sicilian food comes from the 5th century B.C., from a cook named Mithaecus. His writing on his native land’s cuisine was the first documented cookbook in Greece – and the first cookbook in the world in which the author’s name is known and identified. Sicily was first inhabited by an “ancient people of Italy,” with small groups from Egypt and Spain as well. However, the island was not really put on the map until it was colonized by the Greeks. They left behind grand ruins and theaters in places like Siracusa and Taormina, but also – significantly – brought olives and grapes with them, introducing some of the most important crops to the region and to what we know of Sicily and Italy today. The Greek diet – which today is so affectionately called “the Mediterranean diet” – leans heavily on fresh fish and vegetables.
From there came the Germanic tribes (hence, Sicily’s love of meat dishes), Byzantine conquests, and Arab rule. Under the Sultan, Sicily was introduced to things like oranges, lemons, pine nuts, sugarcane, eggplants, and a love of spices such as saffron and cinnamon. Arab influence on Sicilian food runs deep. Arancini, for example, are a Sicilian favorite and it’s no wonder: balls of risotto, stuffed with cheese, meat, tomatoes and peas are breaded and then fried, creating a Mediterranean dish reminiscent of fried mac’n’cheese (but infinitely better).
There are endless variations of what can be put in arancini, but the risotto is constant. And many claim that it was the Arab settlers that first introduced Sicily to durum wheat, which is crucial to making risotto and pasta. The original recipe for arancini supposedly dates back to the 10th century during the Kalbid dynasty.
Panelle – those golden slivers of fried chickpeas – are some of the best of Sicilian street food, and both its ingredients and preparation styles are very similar to Middle Eastern chickpea dishes. They let out a satisfying crunch and ooze of grease with each bite, as you stroll under the arches and domes hand-crafted by caliphates long gone.
Later came the Normans. And then the Holy Roman Empire. And then the Spanish, and with them, discoveries from the new world, such as tomatoes, peppers, and – of course – chocolate. With these new additions, famous dishes such as Pasta alla Norma (fresh tomatoes, fried eggplant, basil, and ricotta salata) became Sicilian staples.
Under the unification of Italy in 1861, Sicily technically became “Italian,” but its culture – particularly that of its food – remained steadfastly siciliana. There are countless pasta, fish, meat, vegetable, and dessert dishes that are incredible, undeniably Sicilian, and too many to mention in order to truly do justice to the Sicilian food culture. It is the chaotic combination of all of its cultures, coming together to be shared on a table with friends and family, which makes Sicilian food just that: Sicilian.
These are the culinary traditions that many Sicilian Americans still celebrate today, bonded by a sense of community at events like the Feast of Saint Joseph’s Day. Sicilians and Sicilian Americans alike still pride themselves on this unique heritage; the knowledge that they are not from the mainland of Italy, but from a place unique in its diversity. It still elicits a kind of burning, fiery pride, and we here at the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) are proud to call Sicily our 2017 Region of Honor this year. We are excited to continue celebrating this region’s incredible culinary and cultural history!