We first got acquainted as grease dribbled down my chin. My first bite of the island of Sicily was a whopping pani câ meusa, a street food go-to in the region. I tucked into that harmonious smattering of veal offal bits braised in lard, salted, and then sandwiched between two sesame-topped buns. After a lengthy walk through the stone streets, exploring chapels, churches, plazas, and palaces across Palermo, Sicily’s capital, the sandwich was a perfect fuel.
It also had the right mix of oily guilt to inspire me to continue walking for the day in hope of making a dent into those newly acquired calories.
A goal short-lived as I ventured deeper into the market of Vucciria, the arguable pulse of this city. A symphony of sights and smells beckoned me at every turn of the narrow lanes. Fresh produce lined crates as I lingered on lime green gourds stretching taller than me. The air thick with briny salted capers and musk from fennel and saffron paired well with the crackling of arancini, yet another Sicilian fried delicacy of rice balls stuffed with meat stewed in tomato sauce.
I tried my best to resist, to not think about all the food in the market as I distracted myself by staring in awe at the gold and navy blue mosaics of the Church of Martorana; or touring the formidable opera house, Massimo Theatre, towering over the orange-rust slated buildings on Piazza Verdi; or head strained upwards taking in the splendour of Palermo Cathedral, a building of hodge-podge architectural styles and aesthetics built and amended over countless centuries.
I lost that battle. Like this cathedral, every corner in Sicily is filled with the temptation of treats brought from varying cultures. The island traded hands between Byzantine, Islamic, Roman, Norman, and Greek empires.
Sicilian cuisine is rich in as many fried items as meaty dishes often prepped from what would qualify as discards in other cuisines: stigghiola, grilled sheep intestines wrapped around spring onions; sfincione, a thick but spongy pizza bread lathered with tomato sauce and anchovies; thinly crusted chickpea fritters or panella and frittola, a crisp cone of paper wrapped around veal scrapings like a prized Christmas stocking. The food of Palermo is one born of sustenance to fill the bellies of working classes and has since grown to embody the love of eating, cooking and sharing.
In a trance, I’d left behind the markets and was staring out at the aquamarine sea with another classic in hand, a brioche bun filled with chocolate gelato. What began as a day to take in the sights, officially devolved into a blossoming relationship with schitìcchiu, what Italians call a feast of nibbles.
From the mannerisms of locals to the staples of cuisine out on display, I found no better way to get acquainted with the intimacies of a city than through its markets. Even at night these markets retain their hold over life flooding outwards from Taverna Azzura. Locals, students, and foreigners alike gather out in the plaza with barkeeps serving sangue (meaning blood) wine, a sweet red with a hint of fizz or zibibbo, a golden white, flowing from taps.
Days later, the hold Sicilian cuisine had over me grew. As if in a scene from Zindagi Na Milega Dobara, I met a couple college friends and we whisked away from the city to the country listening to unidentifiable Italian tunes over the radio. We drove inwards, where flat shores become sprawling hills with tiny gullies of grape vines comfortably resting through the landscapes of Agrigento.
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has gone from being an existentially lost soul, to a culinary vagabond/spy in household kitchens, and now author of 'Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan' a cookbook-cum-travel narrative through the faiths and foods of India.
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