Why one of Italy’s most iconic snacks owes a debt to North Africa
Think of Sicily and you envisage lush sun-drenched hills rippling with citrus groves. It’s a landscape as quintessentially Italian as its food. Yet few visitors realise that both owe a debt to the Moors, who once ruled the island (902–1061 AD) and brought oranges and lemons here. The Moorish influence is buried deep in a lot of Sicilian cooking, and nowhere more so than its arancini.
Now iconically Sicilian, these tasty stuffed rice balls were first made by the Tuareg people, desert nomads who hailed from the Sahara region. But instead of rice, they used goat meat and couscous. Brought over to Sicily by its invaders, the arancini recipe soon evolved. In the 13th-century, the chef to King Frederick II swapped out couscous for rice, so it would be more robust, and added a breadcrumb crust. The aim was to create a durable treat for the king’s hunting expeditions, so they didn’t have to light a fire and scare away their prey.
Today, it’s a typical snack for those on the go and comes in many forms. In Palermo, the island’s southern capital, different shapes have become shorthand for the many fillings. Cone-shaped arancini have a spinach centre; the flat, round ones contain mushroom; the rectangular kind are stuffed with mozzarella and ham ( right); and the balls hide tasty ragu.
This system varies as you travel the island. Head to the east of Sicily and those made in the town of Catania are conical, in honour of nearby volcano Mount Etna. Yet wherever you eat them, nothing quite sums up Sicily’s rich history as well – or as scrumptiously.
Did you know? Like Cornish pasties, arancini were originally designed for only the filling to be eaten and the crust to be thrown away, as it had been handled by grubby fingers.