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.
Proud amongst the cliffs are relics of the island’s Greek past—columns and statues in honour of Zeus and Juno along with other celestial deities nestled in the Valley of Temples. Before turning away from the southern coast, the three of us shared in the romance of the island among the Scala dei Turchi, white cliffs where we watched the sun dip into the sea leaving a saturation of blues, oranges, and pinks along the sky and feasted upon a picnic of olives, sliced meats, aged cheeses, and grocery store wine.
It was night by the time we reached our agriturismo farm stay at one such vineyard in the region. Dinner was at the estate where famished, we ordered the entire menu: Pasta alla Norma, Pasta chi Sardi, and Busiate al pesto Trapanese.
The first, made of fried eggplant in tomato sauce, is an homage to the locally grown vegetables of the island. The second, with saffron, raisins, fennel, pine, and sardines, encapsulates the Arabic additions of dried fruit, nuts, and spices to the cuisine—the very traders who helped to popularise these pasta varietals when they travelled with wares from China to these European shores. And the last, showcasing the island’s connection to the mainland of Italy, is a dish of durum-based twists and pesto made from basil, almonds, garlic, and parmesan cheese.
After settling into a slow-paced lifestyle, we bid a bittersweet farewell to our hosts and followed the coast to the walled city of Syracuse. Mount Etna basked snowcapped in the far distance, creating a dramatic backdrop to the island of Ortigia, once a Greek settlement which at its height was akin to the likes of Sparta and Corinth. While its most famous historic inhabitant might be Archimedes, who propelled math and engineering in the guise of wartime experiments, we snooze through the plan to visit the museum in his honour and instead make our way once more to the markets.
The salty scents of seafood greeted us here—marked at one end by Caseificio Borderi, where a chef-cum-artist spins masterpieces from sandwiches, and through to the other side where the fresh hauls of the morning beg to be cooked. Anchovies, swordfish, tuna, sardines, squids… the offerings were endless. Thankfully, we were joined by a market guide and at-home chef, Fiora, who tempered our enthusiasm to select only a few staples for our lesson that day.
The afternoon was spent crafting beccafico, arranging plump sardines into tiny sandwiches, filled with capers and nuts before being breadcrumb fried. We stuffed zucchini flowers with cheese before gently dunking them into batter. A pasta was prepared from cuttlefish and ink. And for dessert, we made cannoli, a round flour crust, crispened around a mold before it is piped with ricotta cheese and a dab of lemon zest with crushed pistachio.
A need to walk returned in order to stave off the food coma of our final day in Sicily. We toured the Greek Theater, Cave of Dionysus, and then settled on the banks around the corner from Fonte Aretusa, a natural spring filled with rare wild papyrus. It was there we listened to a familiar song that we had encountered at countless venues through our travels. The 2018 hit, “Sei la mia città.” You are my city.
While eating local has become trendy worldwide, here on an island surrounded by pristine waters and fertile soil, it has always been the way of life. Local, that is, mixed with a smidge of the best of those cultures who came and imparted a part of themselves to the food. Sicily was love at the first greasy bite. A love that will stand even after the weeks’ worth of digestion, forever existing in me as a fond memory. And, in turn, a part of the island will always be imparted unto me as fat stored around the belly.
Most flights to Palermo or other cities in Sicily from Delhi or Mumbai include layovers in either a European or Middle Eastern hub like Frankfurt or Dubai. Streaty in Palermo offers a variety of walking tours including a market tour (streaty.com). La Casa di Bacco in Agrigento is an excellent vineyard stay (doubles from $80/`5,836). Fiora, of Sicilian Demo Cooking, organises the quintessential local food experience in Syracuse (siciliandemocooking.com).
Varud Gupta 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.