Italian cuisine

Reflections on the Arabic influence on Italian cuisine

The Mediterranean connects three continents: Europe, Africa and Asia. The peoples who settled in the Mediterranean developed various languages, religions, philosophies and cultures that represent distinct blends of nuances from each civilization. This is particularly evident in the world famous cuisines that make up the region, revealing the strong influence of the Arab world.

I first experienced the Mediterranean as the setting for the summer holidays of my youth. This is the Mediterranean of holidays, deep blue and turquoise waters, and salt on the skin after wiping off a swim on a sunny beach. Traveling to its eastern and southern extremities, I have found the Mediterranean to be a true bridge between peoples that has inspired and witnessed some of humanity’s most significant events.

I found that the Mediterranean was a real bridge between peoples that inspired and witnessed some of the most significant events of humanity.

It is this ubiquitous heritage that makes bathing in this sea so special. And it is also possible to “eat” the supranational entity that is the Mediterranean to understand “the inclusiveness of its specificities”, or rather to grasp the essence of its multicultural vocation.

In this regard, taking advantage of a cannolo or allowing the scent of a lemon to release nostalgic memories of youth on the Amalfi Coast offers the opportunity to immerse yourself in history. Indeed, these two foods serve as symbols, even metaphors, for the cultural wealth that the Arabs exported to Sicily – part of present-day Italy – from the 9th to the 10th centuries.

Arab influence in Sicily — the Emirate of Siqiliya (صقلية) – ranges from food and culture to architecture and art. It also includes town planning, fishing, farming and irrigation techniques – more than many Sicilians would admit, given that many are more open about their Norman/Viking roots.

Lemons and Cannoli, Souvenirs from Sicily and Amalfi

Among the wonders the Arabs discovered when they traded, then invaded and settled the lands that once made up the Persian Empire, India and China, were beautiful fruits hanging from fragrant trees . The Arabs called these fruits layun (ليمون), the same fruit that the Italians call “silt” and English speakers call them “lemons”. The cultivation of lemons, along with other varieties of citrus fruits and fruits in the Arab Empire, spread from the East to Syria, Palestine and North Africa.

They also arrived in Italy. Although it seems that the Romans were already familiar with lemons – or more likely cedar fruits – as their representations adorned the mosaics of Roman North Africa and the frescoes of the patrician houses of Pompeii, these were probably imported rather than grown locally. What is certain is that the Arabs brought the lemon from the East to Persia, Iraq and Egypt in the 7th century AD.

Arab agricultural and irrigation techniques had reached sufficient sophistication by the 9th century (3rd century AH), as revealed in texts from this period. The most famous of these, and perhaps the most relevant when it comes to citrus fruits, is Abu Bakr ibn from Wahshiya”Al-filāḥah al-nabaṭīyah(Nabataean Agriculture), a veritable treatise on agronomy; and Ibn al-Awwam’s “Kitab al-filaha” (Book of Agriculture) which devotes an entire chapter to lemon. The texts reveal that the Arabs improved irrigation systems using canals and cisterns while introducing new cultivation techniques, resulting in improved harvesting of existing species and the introduction of new ones. .

Such developments allowed the Arabs to expand the nomenclature of fruits, as many varieties of the same fruits were produced. In addition, it allowed them to transfer the techniques and assortments to the lands of the empire and those bordering it. Thus, Sicily, as well as Spain (al Andaluslisten)), served as important centers of food production and military expansion.

The port of Amalfi was to play a vital role in the exchange of the “new” Arab products such as lemons, cane sugar and silk to what was then the Holy Roman Empire.

The port of Amalfi (just south of Naples) was to play a vital role in the exchange of “new” Arab products such as lemons, cane sugar and silk to what was then the Holy Roman Empire ( which included most of central Europe). Amalfi, through its close relationship with the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople, forged close ties with the Arabs of Sicily, becoming an essential bridge between the eastern and western borders of the Mediterranean.

Amalfi and Sicily therefore became important centers for the transfer of products, culture and knowledge from the Arabs to Europe. The cooks of the Abbasid period invented new recipes in the palaces of Baghdad and al-Fustat (Cairo) in the 9th and 10th centuries. Based on the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables that the Arabs had discovered, these would spread throughout the empire.

[Cuisine in the Middle East and North Africa: A Cultural Cornucopia]

[The Evolution of Arabic Music: A Mosaic of Cultural Influences]

Sweets and the Benefits of Mixing Foods and Cultures

This brings me back to my dear cannolo. It is filled with candied citrus, from oranges to cider and lemon. It is also filled with evidence of the great transfer of knowledge and traditions that are the basis of today’s Italian cuisine. The very term candy, or candied, derives from the Arabic “whenever” (قندي), which refers to the sugar cane juice used by the Arabs to preserve and transform flowers and fruits – especially citrus fruits – into sweet delicacies. Orange peels and other candied fruits have become one of the quintessential specialties of Sicily and Amalfi, for that matter.

However, the candied fruit represents only one of the many aspects of Arab civilization that each cannolo delicacy symbolizes. One of the most believable stories regarding the origin of the tube-shaped dessert is that it was created by the concubines of the Sultan’s harem. Qalt el-Nisa’ (ex. Women’s Fortress) – today Caltanissetta – to symbolize the virility of their lord. Today there is not an Italian patisserie – inside and beyond the Italian borders – that does not offer cannoli to eat with an espresso coffee (and as for coffee, and coffee culture, its adoption in Europe goes through the Ottomans).

Arabic-influenced Italian cuisine

Spicy cannoli with lemon and pistachio

The cannoloThe history of can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans, who enjoyed a banana-shaped dessert filled with ricotta, almonds and honey. But it was the Arabs who elevated the taste experience through the addition of candied fruit. As a gluttonous connoisseur of food and desserts, I believe Sicilians make some of the most exquisite treats the human mind has ever devised.

The cannolo can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans, who enjoyed a banana-shaped dessert filled with ricotta, almonds and honey. But it was the Arabs who elevated the taste experience.

And they owe everything to the Arabs, especially those who arrived from Fatimid, Tunisia, just 90 miles from present-day Palermo. They brought with them sugar cane and the principles of modern confectionery; accompanied by the sorbet that comes fromsharbat“, an iced drink that the Arabs made with snow from Mount Etna (near Catania), preserved in salt, a common technique in the courts of the Middle East.

The famous granita which southern Italians enjoy in summer, is a direct descendant. Just like the Limoncello liqueur sold all over the Amalfi Coast. And what about hemp, rice, artichokes, spinach, capers and eggplant? When I eat eggplant parmigiana Where caponate, cous cous, Arancini, shutter and panel, peperonatasweet panzerotti (katayef), Where broken – which the Arabs call “Qas’a“- I never forget to exclaim”Allah!” in praise, as a way of thanking the Arab geniuses who brought these wonderful flavors to Sicily and Italy.

In this respect, if Sicily has often been invaded and dominated, one could suggest that, following the example of the Greeks who settled in the island giving it its civilizational foundation, the Arabs also assimilated and integrated Sicily well more than they colonized it. Indeed, even the Normans, whom the Vatican urged to expel the Arabs from Sicily, remained spellbound by the beauty and civilization they witnessed. Thus the Normans neither expelled nor persecuted them – as would be the case in Spain in the 15e century.

Likewise, the Arabs trained Emperor Frederick II the Great, who built one of the oldest universities in the world (the first secular) in Naples. Frederick is said to be involved in the crusades, but he is said to have led only one, leaving no casualties or bloodshed.

So even amid the frenzy of European nationalism and imperialism in the 19e century, the German historian Theodor Mommsen was able to observe that the peoples of the Mediterranean have a common base.

Ultimately, the fabulous Sicilian cuisine and its Arabian heritage serve as a metaphor for the beauty that comes from “mixing” not just foods and recipes, but peoples. Scientists believe that various genes produce stronger and more beautiful specimens. If one were to apply this notion to culture, the taste of Sicilian gastronomy would certainly prove it.