Food in medieval Sicily
By Christiane Truelove
Published Online (2013)
Introduction: My interest in Sicilian food and medieval Sicily is familial in origin. My paternal grandmother and her family came from the tiny mountain town of Corleone (no, really). As a child, I had fantasized that our family had some sort of connection with Richard the Lionheart, as I knew enough Italian to theorize that Corleone meant “lion heart.” Fast-forward many years to when I found out that Corleone actually was an Arab name,“Qurlayun,” and the Quaglino family originally came from Lombardy. How they got there, and the Arabs were no longer there, spurred me into some serious research into the Arab presence on the island and the subsequent Norman rule that some Sicilians even today look to as a golden age.
The Arabs ruled Sicily for just over two centuries, but one of the most persistent elements of the Sicilian culture even today remains its Muslim past. In Palermo, many streets in the old Kalsa district by the waterfront (from the Arabic al-Khalesa) put one in mind of Cairo or Morocco, especially in the souk-like markets or the street vendors around the Teatro Massimo from Northern Africa selling textiles, furniture, hookahs, and jewelry. You’ll find couscous, “cucusa” in Sicilian dialect, on the menu in Trapani, only made with fish instead of lamb. Sicilian dialect itself has many words of Arabic origin, including the name of the island’s capital, Palermo — from the Arabic Bal’Harm. The Arabs introduced irrigation techniques and the cultivation of many crops that indelibly changed the island’s cuisine – eggplants, rice, oranges, lemons, date palms, mulberries,and sugar. Marzipan and dried semolina pasta, according to several food scholars, hadtheir origins in the kitchens of the Arab emirs. Today’s caponata, with its sweet and sour flavors, came out of Arabic cooking (a version of eggplant salad from the island of Ustica, off the coast of Palermo, may be considered a proto-caponata). Sicilian cuisine today emphasizes one-dish, stuffed meals, sweet and sour flavors, and a use of spices not found in mainland Italian cuisine.
One of the earliest mentions of what Arabs in Sicily liked to eat, that I could find, comes from the writings of Mohammed ibn Hawqal. In 972 during his visit to Palermo, ibn Hawqal commented on the number of mosques in the city, more than 300. In William Granara’s translation of ibn Hawqal’s writings, Mr. Granara points out that despite his admiration of the beauties of Sicily, ibn Hawqal feels very much a stranger on the island. Ibn Hawqal, although a Muslim, did not think much of his co-religionists; he attacked the Palermo Sicilians as Muslims in their insistence on private ownership of mosques, and personally as well, calling them dimwitted. He attributes this in part to the amount of onions consumed in their diet:
And in truth this food, of which they are fond and which they eat raw, ruins their senses. There is not one man among them, of whatsoever condition, who does not eat onions every day, and does not serve them morning and evening in his house. It is this that has clouded their imagination; offended their brains; perturbed their senses; altered their intelligence; drowsed their spirits; fogged their expressions, untempered their constitutions so completely that it rarely happens they see things straight.