Food History: The Link Between Sicilian and Arabic Cuisine

GRAZIE to my cousin, Yvonne Maffei, Chef, Food Writer and Publisher of My Halal Kitchen ( for allowing me to write and share a reflection on Mediterranean food history and the connection between Sicilian and Arabic cuisine with her readers, and now you.  You may read the article on Yvonne’s website directly at the link below – I also copied and pasted in this blog post for everyone.

The Link between Sicilian and Arabic Cuisine

I love to learn about the history of food- how ingredients crossed the ocean traveled long distances along the Silk Road or made their way from one distant culture to another from empirical expansion or conquest. They are fascinating instances of cultural exchange and a fascination with new flavors, textures and the healing power of culinary delights that people have discovered along the way. It really gives pause when you think about how incredible it is that certain foods have reached our tables in the form of traditional recipes and fusion food.

 That’s why I reached out to my cousin, Francesca Mignosa, an expert on the Sicilian way of life and author of the recently published book,  My Sicily: Life in the Cusp of the Mediterranean Sea. She grew up on the island of our grandparents, great-grandparents and ancestors before them. When she moved to the U.S. in the mid 1990′s, she began to reflect back on the beauty of the food, the culture, the art and history of a place she calls home and now shares that with others through her lectures and guided tours of Sicily each summer.  In this post, I asked her to talk about my fascination with the Sicilian connection to Arabic food and culture, and this is what she wrote…

Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Palermo
Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Palermo

Sicily was an Arab Emirate from 827-1091.  During this time, three Arab dynasties ruled:  the Aghabids, the Fatimids and the Kalbids.  The Arabs were referred to as Saracens {which also encompassed Spanish Muslims}.  Advanced thinking, intellectuals, geographers and scholars from the Arab world filled Sicilian royal and noble palaces.  We owe to the Arabs innovative improvements – almost monumental – in the fields of science, engineering, architecture, cuisine, language, spirituality and also to the demeanor of Sicilians today.  To be a Sicilian, in fact, means partially, to be an Arab.

Though Islam met the already existing and established Christian communities in the territory, they also surprisingly found a number of Jews.  It is not uncommon the surprise and sense of awe that many tourists will experience in Palermo – when walking inside a church that simultaneously hosts a Byzantine Orthodox altar on the left side, a Jewish Synagogue on the right and a Mosque in the lower level.  I find this to be an extraordinary example of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

Piazza di Ortigia {ancient Siracusa}
Piazza di Ortigia {ancient Siracusa}

Today, our tables still present an opulence of Arabic influences – I would like to highlight a few key ingredients that make up the DNA of Sicilian-Arabic traditional and emerging cuisine {listed in Italian with their English or Arabic counterpart}:

Pistacchio {fustuq in Arabic} –Carrubo {cherub} –Agrumi {citrus fruits} Canna da Zucchero {sugar cane} –Riso {rice} –Cous-cous {cuscusu in Arabic} –Melanzane {eggplants} –Spinaci {spinach} –Carciofi {artichokes} –Spezie {spices}

*Cous-cous is primarily eaten on the Western coast of Sicily – specifically in the cities of Trapani, Palermo, San Vito Lo Capo, Castellamare del Golfo.  The main condiment is seafood.  It is also in San Vito Lo Capo that every September the famed “Cous-Cous Festival of Sicily” takes place. In the area of Agrigento {southern Sicily} we also find a sweeter cous-cous eaten as dessert.

*Cassata – probably Sicily’s most renowned pastry internationally – originated from the Arabs who made a sweet cheese dessert drizzled with honey {miele in Italian}.  Linguistically, the word comes from the Arabic “qashatah“.

*La pasticceria siciliana {Sicilian pastries} renowned across the globe owes some of its key methods and ingredients to the Arabs also:  syrups, candid fruits, honey, giuggiulena {sesame seeds}, mennuli {Sicilian for almonds} are a few of the numerous imported.

Francesca V. Mignosa is the Author of “My Sicily: Life in the Cusp of the Mediterranean Sea” (2012).  To follow Francesca’s book tour, read her reflections on Sicily, the Sicilian and Sicilian-American culture, visit her blog:   or follow her Facebook :  Francesca V. Mignosa – Author of My Sicily.  You may also email Francesca at   Books can be purchased on her blog ($25.00).




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