Arabian influence on Sicily, once an Islamic state, is still very much alive in the Riso al Forno, Cassata, and Cubbaita—not to mention ice cream.
Say Sicily to people on adventure holidays and the first thing that comes to mind would most probably be pasta, pasta and more pasta—be it spaghetti ai ricci, which is spaghetti prepared with sea urchin, or pasta alle sarde, spaghetti with anchovies.
Sicily, an emirate from 831 AD to 1072 AD, had its honeymoon with Arabia that resulted in the fusion, if you will, of Arabic delicacies and traditional Sicilian cuisine which has found its way in popular menus of today’s Italian restaurants.
It all started in 652 AD with the invasion by Muslims led by Caliph Uthman, the third of the Sunni Rashidun or Rightly Guided Caliphs, who seized control of the entire island from the Byzantines, and which resulted in prolonged conflicts. This culminated in the arrival of some 10,000 more Arabs on Sicilian shores around 831 AD to nail their dominion air tight—well, until 1072, at least, when intra-dynastic quarrels fragmented their hold.
During their reign, the Arabs made systematic, intensive farming possible and introduced crops including North African sugar cane from which the marzipan as well as the Sicilian pastry desserts, cannoli evolved, not to mention, gelato, the Italian ice cream.
There also was the bergamot, a fragrant citrus that the Arabs used as flavouring for their exotic beverages and later on discovered to go well with snow from the Sicilian volcano, Mt. Etna to create sharbat, known today as sherbet.
Moreover, Sicilians also adopted the Arabic—Tunisian, more specifically—couscous, which is made from durum wheat, cooked by steaming and served with meat or vegetable stew on top, and named it, cuscusu, a refined version.
Arabic was official language during the Islamic period which is why today many famous Sicilian dishes have Arabic names like the ricotta cake, Cassata which is from quas’ta, a big round pan in which it is made; and Cubbaita, the torrone made with honey, sesame seeds and almonds, which comes from the Arabic, qubbayt.
Another mark of Arabian influence on Sicilian dishes is the Pasticcio di Pollo of the Emir of Catania which has olives, capers, and other ingredients that reflects the Arabic penchant for stuffed food and pistachios.
Lastly, Sicilians—and all Italians for that matter—follow a certain meal structure that begins with a “starter” or antipasti, followed by pasta and on to the main dish then capped with desserts and sweets. This however changed under the Arabs who introduced one-dish meals like the baked rice casserole or Riso al Forno
So, next time you go Sicilian for dinner, bear in mind, the food on the table is very much Arab…and Greek, Roman and Spanish—the different cultures that have dominated Sicily at one point or another for the past 2,000 years.
Sicily is great for outdoor activities as well such that those on adventure holidays has it on their bucket list.
Photos by Dennis Jarvis (Flickr)