Monday, November 7, 2011

The Saracens in Sicily: Retracing Sicily's Culinary Lineage

Cassata Siciliana,
a ricotta and marzipan cake, glazed with sugar and candied fruit
 typifies the gifts of the Saracens to Sicily's cuisine.
This one was purchased at Bar Enzo e Nino of Marsala.
 It is virtually impossible to have a discussion of Sicily's cuisine without taking into account its history and the many civilizations that left their cultural, architectural, linguistic and most importantly for us, gastronomic mark upon the territory and its people.  Among the most enduring influences are those traced to Sicily's Arab conquerors, to whom we owe much of the  framework of our cuisine as well as the introduction of many new foods and agricultural innovations.

Sicily's Arab conquerors are often referred to as Saracens, a Medieval name encompassing the Semitic people of the Middle East as well as Muslim Berbers from North Africa. At the time of the Arab invasions, roughly in the early 800's, Sicily was under the rule of the Byzantine empire.  The command of the Byzantine naval fleet in Sicily was entrusted to a local chieftain named Euphemius. A charismatic man, it appears Euphemius had political ambitions which ran counter to those of  the Byzantine empire.  Organizing a rebellion, he killed the local Byzantine governor of Sicily and fled to Siracusa, where he declared himself Emperor. 

King Michael II and his son Theophilos 
Knowing that the Byzantine Emperor Michael II would send armies to take back Sicily, Euphemius struck a deal the Emirs of North Africa. In exchange for his safety and their governorship of Sicily, the Saracens were asked to provide military backing to take Sicily and Malta from the Byzantine Empire. 10,000 Arab troops were already in Sicily when Euphemius was killed in the fighting in 827.

His death opened the doors to a new chapter in Sicily's history --The Emirate of Sicily--and the events that followed changed the course of Sicilian culture forever. Arab rule in Sicily took some 30 years to consolidate and was strongly resisted.   Yet despite its violent beginnings and the harsh economic, religious and cultural injunctions forced upon the people of Sicily, this period is generally viewed as a time of economic prosperity and innovation. Though they ruled Sicily for only about 200 years, the legacy of our Arab conquerors endures to the present.

Sicilian Oranges
were introduced to Sicily by the Saracens
Some of the most lasting contributions of our Arab ancestors are found in the foods of Sicily and include the introduction of the citrus tree--lemons and bitter oranges. (Sweet oranges  were introduced by Genovese and Portugese crusaders in the 15th century.) To this day the Italian word for oranges "arancia" or "portogallo"  ("partualli" in Sicilian dialect),  bears a striking resemblance to the Arabic words for orange "naranj" and "burtokal".  

Other important crops included cane sugar, which was harvested near Palermo.The technology to refine and process sugar was also introduced by our Arab fore bearers. The sugar industry in Sicily flourished  and managed to stay vital until the 17th century.  Sugar is an important part of our cuisine today. Anyone who has tasted or made Sicilian pastries knows one rule about the use of sugar--if you are going to use it, you must go for it! The paradox of a low-calorie dessert simply does not exist in the Sicilian lexicon, mentality or cuisine.

Sugar is used lavishly in pastries including the famous "Cassata Siciliana" a liqueur soaked  ricotta and marzipan cake, decorated with candied fruit  or"frutta candita;" or the almond confection called "cubbarda," made with sugar, honey, sesame seeds, toasted almonds and orange or lemon zest, or any number of other confections and sweets. Until recently many of the recipes for these delicacies were kept alive and closely guarded by convents and monasteries. As the nuns and monks aged and the religious institutions closed for lack of new members, their recipes were taken over by commercial pastry shops as is the case today in many parts of Sicily.

San Giovanni degli Eremeti,
once an Arab mosque, later a Norman church.
I have heard but not verified, that the city of Palermo
 may have had as many 400 mosques at one time!
Rice was also new to Sicily. Among the agricultural innovations brought by the Arabs was the construction of irrigation canals which facilitated the production of rice.  Today, rice is used in making "arancini" palm sized balls of rice, filled at the center with cheese or meat ragu, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. 

Other products introduced by the Arabs were spices such as saffron, cinnamon, and pepper, anise; vegetables such as eggplant and  artichoke; fruits such as watermelon, pomegranates, apricots, raisins and currants. In addition, a particular way of fishing tuna "la mattanza,"  also dates back to this time.  We will explore these foods with recipes and stories in subsequent blogs.  Until then,

Ciao a presto!


  1. My family came her from Sicily right around 1900. Most of the food is lost to us, but we still make stuffed artichokes and pasta con sarde. There is a cake that always seemed to be there on festive occasion. It had two layers and a lemon filling. The cake was soaked (probably with rum) and it was covered with heavy cream and decorated with transparent gelatin leaves and flowers. I cannot find that cake because I do not know what it is called. Do you know the name? It is absolutely delicious

    1. Hi Anita,
      check out today's blog--"Sicilian American Rum Cake and the Migration of A Recipe". I have a recipe for you there that may be very close to the cake you remember from your family. Let me know how it works out! Best, Rosetta

  2. Pasta lenticchie I remember, that my nannu made, then my father made it, and now my wife makes it.