Adam Leith Gollner takes a journey through Sicily in search of the Arab roots of the sun-drenched isle’s agrodolce flavors.
Seen from the sky—which is to say, observed on the in-flight video map during our final approach—the island appears as a triangularish football being punted toward the Maghreb by Italy’s boot. It’s a pixelated reflection of Sicilian identity itself, which hovers midway between North African and European. That intersection is what brought me here. I’ve come in search of a particular idea, a local expression, a secret password into this place’s soul: mal d’Africa.
The mal refers to heartsickness, as in the feeling of missing Africa. For Sicilians, mal d’Africa is a kind of phantom continent syndrome, a sense of nostalgia for a lost homeland, a homesick longing for the landmass next-door that played such an important role in shaping their way of life. We all have it in some way, that desire to return to an impossible elsewhere. But people here speak of having mal d’Africa when they’ve been traveling away from home for too long. They miss Africa; they need to get back to Sicily.
On the morning I arrive, everything outside the airplane’s window is frosted in white clouds. From the lemon gelato sky, I descend into Palermo, a honking, city-sized souk lined with palm trees, closer to Tunis than Naples. When the campanile rings at the city’s main cathedral (its architecture Arab-Islamic, Byz antine-Orthodox, and Norman-Catholic), it sounds more like interstellar gamelan music played on gongs than Continental church bells.
Shaking off the jet lag, I refuel on a freshly squeezed orange spremuta from a small café in the heart of the Ballarò street market, a lively, semichaotic bazaar that has animated Palermo’s daily life for more than a millennium. Much is on offer here (obsolete electronics, bootleg perfume), but the real draw is the produce. Glossy black olives as big as plums sit next to giant preserved lemons and tubs of glowing red harissa. Piles of long and skinny cucuzza zucchini are stacked on top of their leafy tendrils, ready to be transformed into minestra. Raisins and pine nuts come packaged together for convenience, as so many Sicilian dishes combine them anyway.
On one street corner, a guy is hawking five kinds of eggplant. “La caponata!” he shouts into the morning air. We strike up a broken Italo-English chat in which he informs me that eggplants were first imported into Europe via Arabs who ruled Sicily a thousand years ago—and that the combination of sweetness and acidity that goes into a caponata is itself a hallmark of the Arab-Sicilian touch. “Agrodolce,” he says, sending me off with a pat on the back before continuing to holler at passersby.
A few other vendors are pepper-spraying the atmosphere with their abbanniate, their stentorian cries, using the venerable Palermitan method of selling-by-yelling. A Falstaffian fellow bellows “Babbalucci!” over and over. Sicilian for snails (as opposed to chiocciole or lumache on the mainland), it’s a euphonious word that is believed to be derived from the Arabic.
rom the Arabic. These babbalucci are sold alive in immense squirming mounds, their shells clinking together like delicate castanets as they spill out of their crates. When I ask the snail man how to eat them, he puts his garlicky fingers to his lips and makes a loud kissing sound. “Baci!” he adds, laughing uproariously, making sure I understand that the Sicilian way is to smooch the snails right out of their shells.
I stop for some cornetti at a popular stand. The owner assures me that her cornetti filled with pistachio cream aren’t just molto buono, but that they are, in fact, “crazy amaze-y.” Why is that, I inquire? Because they use pistachios from Bronte, the veritable Città del Pistacchio on Mount Etna. Pistachios are yet another treasure brought to Sicily when it was under Islamic rule, and the filling puts an interesting twist on the old tale that croissants were made to resemble the Ottoman crescent moon.
Nearby stalls sell pannelle di ceci (Arab-style flat chickpea flour fritters) as well as arancini, those well-known bread crumb–battered and fried rice balls whose original recipe is said to date back to the tenth-century Kalbid dynasty.
It doesn’t take long to feel deeply steeped in the general North Africanness of this place—especially if that’s what you’ve come looking for. This is an expedition I’d been hoping to do for years. It began, as these sorts of things do, in a tangential way. Skimming through an encyclopedic tome about the history of gastronomy in Quebec, where I’m from, I happened across a passage suggesting that French Canadian cuisine has its roots in the Muslim food of ninth-century Italy. Sicily was then central to Arab life in the Mediterranean, the conjunction of East and West, North and South, Africa and Europe.
Muslim settlers introduced Italy to the durum wheat they could use for pasta, to rice for risotto, and to sugarcane for dolci. Citrus fruit, spinach, chickpeas, artichokes, and sesame seeds—all of them, plus eggplants for caponata and myriad other ingredients, were brought to Sicily from North Africa. Arabs overhauled their colony with new systems of agriculture, using terrace cultivation and siphon aqueducts for irrigation. These, together with their agrodolces and arancini and world-remaking cooking techniques,gifted this land with what’s sometimes known as cucina Arabo-Siculo.
Several excellent books by Mary Taylor Simeti and Cliff ord Wright explore the subject of Arab contributions to the cuisine, but they were published in the late ’80s or ’90s. A lot can change in 25 years. How evident is the North African connection now? Can the layers of influence still be disentangled? Can traces of the ancient even be isolated in the flavors of modern Sicily? I intend to spend the next week finding out by driving around the island in search of surviving connections.
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