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.
Come hungry, leave inspired: Couscous Fest in September
At the heart of San Vito Lo Capo, just a stone's throw from Palermo in sun-soaked Sicily, kitchens come alive with a melting pot of languages, cultures, and religions. It's not just about food, it's a yearly culinary fiesta! And guess what? As always, the renowned Rome based American chef and actor/director, Andy Luotto, is steering the ship!
Welcome to The Gastronomic Village
Hold onto your taste buds because the entire locale morphs into a colossal culinary playground during the fest. Think age-old recipes getting a sassy twist and traditional flavors dancing with the daring – and it's all thanks to the imaginative minds behind the scenes. With over 40 drool-worthy couscous recipes featured at myriad stands, from noon till the stroke of midnight, you'll be spoilt for choice. Decision fatigue never tasted so good!
And if your sweet tooth's calling? Dive into Sicily's legendary desserts: crispy cannoli, dreamy cascatelle, or those irresistible almond cookies. Wash them down with some of the finest local wines that'll make your taste buds sing! Feeling a touch adventurous? Why not become a couscous connoisseur? Sign up for a crash course and unravel the mystique behind the art of incocciare in our dynamic food labs.
The Arabian touch
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.
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.