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Sicilian couscous, Trapani style
Sicilian couscous, Trapani style

You don't have to travel to North Africa to get your fill of couscous - in southern Italy, especially Sicily, it is quite a common dish, largely due to the Arabic influence on the island since ancient times. In fact, Sicily even plays host to an annual international couscous festival, where chefs compete to concoct the best couscous dish around. So while it may have originated as a humble wheat dish in the Maghreb, leave it to the Italians to go one better.

The diet of the Roman working class consisted mainly of an array of coarsely ground grains. And although today we like to describe Sicilian cuisine as a mixture of cultures, the influence of Arabic cuisine was only very slight in this regard. Ingredients that we nowadays perceive as typically North African were also used by the Phoenicians, who stayed in Sicily much longer than the Arabs and therefore probably had more influence. Citrus fruits although brought to Sicily by the Arabs were used only for perfumes and ornamental fruits and only after the discovery of its effect on scurvy. did it became popular. Although broad beans, lentils and chickpeas were already eaten by the Romans, many of the vegetables we now find in Sicily originated on the American continent. Spices came mainly from India and were only used by the wealthy classes.

sicily 1

Arabs ruled Sicily from 827 to 1091. Their influence is only part of Sicily's complex culture, as Greeks, Romans, Normans, Spaniards, French, mainland Italians and, more recently, Germans and Americans during World War II contributed. An American researcher named Wright studied the influence of Arabic cuisine and said, "What criteria are used to determine whether a dish is Arabic-Sicilian? Often the question was simply not understood. When it was understood, the criteria included folklorisms: folk tales, legends and traditions, not the hard evidence a historian looks for."

He compares Arab elements in the food of Sicily to the Arab architectural remains in Norman palaces and cathedrals on the island. He then goes on to mention the traces woven into a dish like arancini. Rice and saffron were introduced by the Arabs, but the ragout of the filling is distinctly French. As an example, he lists orange juice, raisins and pine nuts in a swordfish filling. Each ingredient was known before, but the combination is Arabic. The Sicilian preference for sweet and sour combinations also seems to come from the Arabs.

sicily 2

Couscous or cuscusu as it is called in Sicily, is the dish with the clearest Arab ancestry. North Africa is very close to Sicily, yet Sicilian couscous is totally different from the North African dish. In Sicily, the ground durum grain is steamed over a fish broth called ´ghiotta´ which contains a combination of various Mediterranean fish. This grain was brought from East Africa by the Arabs in the 8th century. Durum wheat is used for dry pasta and, in the past, among other things, for sailors rusks which could not spoil during the long sea voyages.

Don't be overwhelmed by the number of ingredients you need for this couscous, if you use a little more or less of some it will hardly affect the result. 

Ingredients:
  • for the sauce:
  • 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
  • ½ cup of olive oil
  • ¾ kilo of tomatoes without skin and pips
  • 1 kilo fish heads and tails (tied together in cheesecloth)
  • salt, pepper and some pepperoncini flakes
  • 20 stalks of flat parsley
  • 6 large garlic cloves, peeled
  • 10 large basil leaves
  • 4 tablespoons tomato puree
  • ¾ liter chicken stock (be careful not to make it too salty)
  • for the fish and chicken:
  • 6 medium-sized calamari cleaned and cut into rings
  • 1 kg various kinds of non-fat fish cut into large pieces
  • langoustines or small lobsters can also be used
  • 1 large lemon
  • coarse salt
  • 1 chicken cut into pieces (trim the fat)
  • for the couscous:
  • 1 pound couscous (not precooked)
  • 100 ml water
  • saffron
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 5 large bay leaves 
  • for the broth:
  • 4 liters chicken broth
  • 4 bay leaves
  • saffron
  • 4 medium carrots cut into large pieces
Recipe steps:
  1. Soak the coarsely chopped pieces of onion in a bowl of cold water for ½ hour. Soak the squid and fish pieces in a large bowl of cold water with the lemon cut in half and squeezed and a little coarse salt for ½ hour.
  2. If you are making your own couscous, put the (not pre-cooked) cereal grains in a large bowl. Add salt to the water, along with the saffron, and begin adding the water by tablespoons at a time while rubbing the grains between the palms of your hands. Do not add additional water until the previous tablespoon is completely absorbed by the grains and evenly distributed. When all the water has been absorbed, rub the grains again but this time with a little oil in your palms. Keep repeating this until all the oil is used up.
  3. Put the 4 liters of broth with the bay leaves, saffron and carrots in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
  4. Line a colander with a tea towel or cheesecloth, then mix the prepared couscous with the bay leaves and place in the prepared colander. Fold the tea towel over the top and place the colander in the pan of boiling broth. Cover the colander tightly with a lid or aluminum foil and wrap a wet kitchen towel around the pan to prevent steam from escaping. In the old days in Sicily, people also used a pastry to seal the pan.
  5. Let simmer for 1 hour.
  6. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Drain and dry the onions. When the oil is hot, add the onions. Stir-fry for 5 minutes.
  7. Add the tomatoes and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
  8. Hang the cheesecloth with the fish heads and tails in the pan and cook for 15 minutes, turning the bag occasionally. Season with salt and pepper and the pepperoncini flakes.
  9. Chop the parsley and garlic together on a plate. Add the chopped ingredients along with the basil leaves to the pan, mix well and cook for 5 minutes.
  10. Dissolve the tomato paste in the chicken broth and pour into the pan. Turn the heat down to low and simmer for 1 hour. The liquid should have boiled down to half. Now remove the cheesecloth with the fish bones and discard.
  11. Taste to see if the sauce is to your liking. Start adding the fish that needs at least 35 minutes of cooking time, such as the calamari. Add the other fish and chicken pieces according to their cooking time.
  12. Open the cheesecloth in the colander, mix the couscous well to make sure no lumps have formed, then close it again and let it cook for another hour.
  13. When the sauce is ready and the fish and chicken are cooked, transfer the couscous to a larger serving dish. Pour the sauce over the couscous, arrange all the fish and chicken, with or without the langoustine, on top and sprinkle with parsley.
  14. You can also use pre-cooked couscous of course, but mix it with olive oil, a few bay leaves and saffron.
This recipe is originally from Giuliano Bugialli.
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