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  • Writer's pictureIsabella Akshay

Cooking Sicilian: Here Are Your Must-Have Ingredients

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

As I've said many times before, Sicilian cuisine is, in fact, the result of many influences, which have occurred over time - from Greek, to Arab, to Roman, French, Spanish and even German.

The history of Sicily has seen the island controlled by many – Phoenician and Carthaginian, Greek, Roman, Vandal and Ostrogoth, Byzantine Greek, Aghlabid, Kalbid, Norman, Aragonese and Spanish – but also experiencing important periods of independence, as under the indigenous Sicanians, Elymians and Sicels, and later as the Emirate of Sicily, County of Sicily, and Kingdom of Sicily.

All these influences have enriched our culture and made our cuisine complex and unique. For this reason and to get to know Sicily in more depth, I've decided to dedicate a post to talking about the most used Sicilian ingredients, those that give dishes an unmistakable Sicilian flavour.

Aromatic plants, seeds, nuts

Let's start with the aromatic plants first: the mild Mediterranean climate is ideal for growing aromatic herbs. The most used are:

  • Laurel or bay leaf - addauru in Sicilian, or alloro in Italian

  • Basil - basilicò (note the accent) in Sicilian, or basilico in Italian

  • Caper - ciapperi in Sicilian, or capperi in Italian

  • Oregano - aurifunu in Sicilian, or orìgano (note where the accent falls) in Italian

  • Nepita - or nepitedda in Sicilian is a kind of wild mint that grows in the region; it's called mentuccia in Italian

  • Wild fennel - finuccieddu in Sicilian, or finocchietto in Italian, a plant similar to common dill leaves

  • Fennel seed - also called finuccieddu or finocchietto, but in this case referred to the common spice; this is used a lot in both sweet and savoury dishes in Sicily

  • Sage - salvia in Sicilian and Italian

  • Thyme - timu in Sicilian, or timo in Italian

  • Rosemary - rosmarino in Sicilian and Italian

  • Saffron - zafferano in Sicilian and Italian

  • Cinnamon - cannedda in Sicilian, or cannella in Italian

  • Sesame - cubbaita or giggiulena in Sicilian, sesamo in Italian

  • Almond - miennula in Sicilian, or mandorla in Italian; one of the best local varieties in the "pizzuta" (lit. "pointy" from Avola)

  • Pistachio - pistacchio in Sicilian and Italian; the most celebrated being the one from Bronte, a small town in the Catania municipality

  • Pine nut - pinoli in Sicilian and Italian

  • Raisin - passulina in Scilian, or uvetta in Italian

The list is not exhaustive, but comprises some of the most commonly used herbs and spices in our cuisine.

Dairy & cheeses

Another important category is, of course, that of dairy products and cheeses. In Sicily cheese has been produced since archaic times and it is a much loved and appreciated food. There are really many typical varieties, and each city or village has their own.

The milk used in the production of typical cheeses must be local, and can be from cow, sheep or goat. Other important elements that will make a difference are natural curds, as well as the right working tools.

Sicily has an excellent tradition of ricotta, and you've probably seen me using it in many of my recipes by now.

It is the basis for many of the typical recipes, especially desserts, such as cannoli and cassata. Ricotta has been prepared in Sicily since Greek times: it would have been the Greeks who taught Sicilians the method of making salted ricotta. In nineteenth-century times it was called the poor man's cheese, but has seen a revival in modern times and has become a very sought after ingredient.

Some of the typical cheeses from Sicily include:

  • Ragusano DOP (this is typical of my hometown, Ragusa, and one of Sicily's most popular cheeses)

  • Provola dei Nebrodi

  • Provola Iblea (another one from my hometown and my personal favourite)

  • Vastedda Valle del Belice

  • Pecorino Siciliano DOP

  • Piacentinu Ennese DOP

  • Maiorchino

  • Fiore Sicano

  • Tuma Persa

  • Cascavaddu

  • Palermitano

  • Tumazzo Modicano

  • Caprino di Girgentana

  • Ricotta Fresca

  • Ricotta Salata

  • Ricotta Infornata

From the earth

Then, from the cheeses we move on to the products of the earth. The olive tree is much loved (and dare I say, worshipped) by the Sicilians. It is said that the Greeks introduced it to the island, where it found the ideal climate. It would have been an Athenian named Aristeo who showed Sicilians how to extract oil from olives, inventing "u trappitu" (the oil mill). For this reason he was honoured with the construction of a temple near Syracuse.

The Arabs then improved the maintenance and irrigation systems on the land. The olive oil produced on the island is distinguished by origin in various denominations. As for the most popular varieties of olives in Sicily, we have:

  • Biancolilla

  • Cerasuola

  • Giarraffa

  • Moorish

  • Nocellara Etnea

  • Nocellara del Belice

  • Ogliarola

  • Santagatese

  • Nasitana

  • Tonda Iblea

  • Verdese

Vegetables are also very popular. The peasant culture represents an important part of our Sicilian tradition. One of the things that always surprises me when I go back to Sicily is the idea of seasonality. Having lived in big cities for most of my adult life, I got used to the idea of being able to find any vegetable or fruit throughout the year. Yet, in Sicily we still have a very strong culture of eating only what's in season and as such, our dishes and cuisine evolves with the seasons, and you only get vegetables when they are at their best...isn't that wonderful?

Some of our most typically grown and used vegetables are:

  • Red garlic from Nubia

  • Onion of Giarratana - these are enormous white onions characterised by a very sweet flavour; they are so popular that they have their own festival, celebrated in August every year in the small town of Giarratana, in the Ragusa municipality, where they are cultivated

  • Fava (broad bean) from Leonforte

  • Fava cottoia (broad bean) from Modica

  • Villalba lentil

  • New potato from Messina

  • New potato from Syracuse

  • Ox heart tomato

  • Pachino tomato - did you know? What is now popular around the world as cherry tomato is actually a variety that was lab engineered in northern Italy but then planted for the first time in the really tiny coastal village of Pachino, near Siracusa, for its perfect climate

And what to say about Sicilian fruits? The citrus fruits of the island are well known worldwide, as are the prickly pears, but there are also many other types of fruit that are unique in flavour and variety, such as nespole (medlars, pictured below), gelsi (mulberries), peaches, plums, melons and pears.

The list can go on and on.

To talk about Sicilian cuisine means to truly taking a journey into taste and history, and I hope you've enjoyed this small glimpse into it.

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