The island of Sicily in Italy has a rather distinct culture, one very different from that on the mainland. Among the best ways to explore this unique melting pot of influences is through iconic local dishes.
When my friend Antonella invited me over for breakfast one morning, I went along expecting a hot caffe e cornetto, very much the usual Italian breakfast fare. Imagine my surprise when a warm, golden brown brioche made an appearance, straight out of the oven. With nothing less than a lush, coffee flavoured ice-cream shoved inside! Who eats ice-cream for breakfast, one could ask. “We, Sicilians do,” would be the answer, but of course. Thus began my long love affair with the seductive foodscape of the wonderful island of Sicily. After all, you have to love people who eat ice-cream for breakfast.
Sicily is a continent unto itself. With a varied landscape of food and culture that is not just distinctly different from the mainland but the result of numerous past conquests by the Phoenicians of North Africa, the Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Normans and the Spanish, among others. It remains an enthralling mosaic of many different peoples, their stories and their history.
Here are some adored Sicilian delicacies that have made it to our hearts, inspired by the island’s storied past.
One of the most popular items to have made it to modern-day cocktail parties, these are deep fried dough balls filled with creamy risotto and a melting mozzarella centre. What’s not to love, right? Arancini is plural for arancia, or orange and is shaped like little roundels of breaded and fried goodness. Though risotto is the most popular filling, it isn’t unusual to find arancini with slow-cooked mincemeat or ragu stuffing in eastern Sicly, in slightly conical shapes inspired by the awe-inspiring local fixture, Mt Etna.
These delightful ‘little tubes’ were earlier made and eaten during the Carnival, but now, they are enjoyed all year round. Emblematic of southern Italy’s dessert culture, these little tubes of hard-shell pastry are filled with sweet ricotta. Sometimes candied lemons and oranges are folded into the filling, lending a delightful element of surprise. The ends are dusted off with a sprinkling of pistachios.
The Sicilian Caponata is a hearty side dish or contorno made with fried eggplant, capers, olives, tomatoes, celery, raisins and pine nuts. The gravy has a bold agrodolce (sweet n sour) accent brought on by the play of sweet (honey and raisins) and sour (capers, vinegar, tomatoes) elements. The star item is certainly the aubergine, another gift from the Arab past of Sicily, brought to the island by Muslim traders. The origin and etymology of the word caponata is highly debated but one thing is certain; it is literally a ‘melting pot’ of many influences – raisins and nuts from the Arabs, olives from the Greeks and tomatoes from the Spaniards.
This densely decadent sponge cake used to be an iconic Sicilian Easter dish but now, is found all year round. Carefully constructed from sponge cake, sweet ricotta and chocolate, bound together with hard glaze and decorated with candied fruits and icing, it screams celebration. A sugar syrup mixed with marsala or rum is used to liven up the sponge cake base. The designs on top and candied fruit lend an opulence to this timeless dessert, strangely delicate to the taste. The almonds and citrus are a nod to the Arab past while the sponge cake, called “Pan di Spagna” or Spanish bread in Italian, is reference to that culture. This grand celebration is a work of art in itself and eaten widely across all parts of the island.
Whatever you do, please don’t refer to it as the Cassata cake, which is similar to the annoying nomenclature, Chai tea. It’s simply that – Cassata.
This delightful summer-in-a cup sweet treat is the close cousin of slush, but never tell the Sicilians that. Made with a varied range of flavours ranging from almond, strawberry, pistachio or coffee, it is just as enjoyable by itself or inside a brioche and eaten as the locals do, for breakfast. My favourite has always been lemon with that burst of citrus…. just a beautiful reminder of the good life in the Sicilian sunshine.
Eating in the heart of a Sicilian fish market
Sicily may be distinctive when it comes to the unique foodscape that has been influenced by its history. But the markets bear a strong resemblance to the rest of Italy. Bustling with noise and burgeoning with action, the fish markets are where the fervour is unmistakable. In a quest to showcase the bounties of their beloved island, the intrepid guides of Isolani per Caso (Islanders by Chance) have a special food experience in the vibrant fish markets.
While on a pit stop at “Scirocco” Sicilian Fish Lab, guests can witness all the action unfold right in the heart of Catania’s busy fish market, sample the fresh fare while absorbing the atmosphere over a chilled artisanal beer.
“The fresh shrimp, orange and fennel salad or the octopus salad are authentic local dishes but it is the cartoccio di mare or paper cone of fresh fish like squid and baby octopus that really is the winner, hands down,” points out Marco Timpanaro, a young and raring to go Sicilian food entrepreneur and owner of the establishment.
A great way to end a gastronomic jaunt through Sicily.