The sweet remains of Arab culture in Sicily


Beloved destinations often have overlooked histories. Mic dives into how the past shapes what travelers see today.

There's a Sicilian dessert that my Siracusa-born mother used to rhapsodize about. It's called cassata, and it's like an ice cream cake, but more compact, with dense ricotta and candied fruits packed under a bright green layer of marzipan icing. It's absolutely beautiful to look at, like a piece of Murano glass.

Sicilians are serious about their sweets, which include cannoli, cassatelle (ricotta-filled turnovers) and biancomangiare (a milk pudding). These desserts are different from the baked goods you'd find elsewhere in Italy — the flavors are more potent, more complex somehow. The mainland has gelato, but Sicily has something called granita, a slushie of sorts made with syrups like jasmine and lemon.

Jasmine might seem like an out-of-place ingredient — it's more likely found on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea in Tunisia or Morocco — until you remember that Sicily was under Arab rule for two and a half centuries. There's a whole substrata of customs and attributes inherited from the Arab world, many of which have had profound effects on Sicilians' way of life.

Back to cassata, my mother's childhood favorite. The word comes from "quas'at," Arabic for "copper pot." It was in these vessels that Arabs — who arrived in 827 AD and promptly transformed Palermo into their cultural and military stronghold — used to mix a simple, albeit hyper-sweet, pudding of sugar and ricotta cheese.

Unlike Spain, which had a longer period of Arab occupation (nearly eight centuries) but was surrounded by competing influences, Sicily had the virtue of being a small, contained island. Arab culture flourished quickly, unhindered by outside forces or bellicose neighbors. Sicily became its own entity, a sort of synthesis of southern Italian and Muslim culture.

Scott Wylie/Flickr

"To the outside world, the Arabs living in Sicily were Sicilians," Gaetano Cipolla wrote in his book Siciliana: Studies on the Sicilian Ethos and Literature, which examines the ways Arab culture not just permeated Sicily, but enriched it. "Under the Muslims ... the island began to reap the benefits of the Islamic civilization that at the time was the most advanced in the world. Sicily became the meeting point between East and West, Europe and Africa."

Remnants of "Siqilliah," as the island was known within the Muslim empire, were mostly wiped out by the Normans, who took over in 1092 AD. But some traces can still be found, particularly around western Sicily, where the Arabs left the strongest footprint. Marsala, where the famous wine comes from, literally translates to "port of Allah." And in Mazara del Vallo, a town on the west coast, there's still a sizeable population of Tunisians living in a historic center known as the Kasbah.

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To see the lingering influence the Arabs had on this Italian island, start in Palermo. The city's main artery is named Via Vittorio Emanuele, but locals refer to it as the Cassaru, a derivation of "qasr" meaning "castle." This street bisects the magnificent Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, which used to be a mosque (in fact, Palermo used to be full of them) and has been called the "perfect blend of Christian and Muslim culture." Around the corner, Ballarò Market has a souk-like feel, with its crammed stalls and colorful wares. Just outside the city, at the Castle of the Favara Maredolce, you can wander through an Amir's palace built on the site of a natural spring. Same goes for La Cuba, a massive palace commissioned by Norman ruler William II, but decorated by Arab artisans.

Arabs revolutionized the way Sicilians fished, introducing a method where tunnels of net would direct the flow of tuna into a massive "chamber of death," which would then be raised and harpooned. Seafood lovers csn visit Favignana, a gorgeous island not far off the coast from Trapani (the ferry takes just 30 minutes). Here, you'll find one of Sicily's most important tonnara, the facility where fresh-caught tuna are weighed, washed and divided. "When I think of the Arab influence, I often think of the mattanza, the tuna fishing ritual," Karen LaRosa, an established tour guide in Sicily, said in an email. "It was a fascinatingly intense and important practice ... much like a religious ritual."

Arab traditions are even more pronounced in Sicilian food culture. On his popular Palermo street food tours, Salvatore Agusta enjoys the shock on people's faces when they learn that arancini (stuffed rice balls), perhaps Sicily's most famous culinary export, were actually devised by the Arabs as a way to preserve meat. And Zibibbo grapes, which have their own UNESCO World Heritage designation, are named after the Arab word "zabib," which means "sweet." Artichokes, a springtime staple in any Sicilian diet, are called "carciofo" in Italian. The Arab word is "kharshuf."

Then there's couscous, a dish that most wouldn't associate with Italian cooking, but is ubiquitous on the western coast of Sicily. There's even an annual couscous festival in San Vito Lo Capo, where international chefs compete to make the tastiest version of the dish. While you're there, throw in a visit to the Laboratorio Dolci Peralta for good measure, where you can try the famous cassata (Warning: It's a bit of a sugar bomb) and cannoli the way they're meant to be served, with the ricotta filling added to order.

Sicilians, who are quick to point out the ancient Greeks' contributions to their beautiful island (See: Agrigento's Valle dei Templi), sometimes fast-forward over the 250-year chapter that sparked radical advancements in their culture, language, architecture and food. But it's a piece of the history worth hearing — and one that travelers can easily seek out.