Ancestral Food: Sicilian Caponata

Caponata on rice

My life has always been intertwined with Italy, Italian culture weaving through each fundamental moment and milestone. I was adopted by Italians and grew up in an Italian American household. I learned to cook from my Italian foremothers. I married an Italian. I co-created two half-Italian children, and now, I live in Italy. It has been my destiny to be tangled up with this place.

Bridging Food Cultures

Recently I worked with an Italian publishing company who was tasked to create a magazine focused on Pasta for an American client. They needed someone who understood the language, cuisines, and palates, not to mention the availability of ingredients of both cultures to edit the magazine. It was an honor for me to be that editor*

In the letter from the editor, I spoke of my passion for bridging food cultures, and how I am particularly interested in the food of immigrants, especially how traditional dishes change when the person moves to a new environment and becomes part of a new culture. I talked about my experience with food and cooking as a recent immigrant, myself. I talked about my grandfather who was born in Sicily and moved with his family to the states when he was still a boy. I wrote about his story coming full circle, now that I am back living in his homeland.

Ancestral Food

Ancestral food is simply the food your ancestors ate. By eating the food of your ancestors, it helps you to connect to that culture in a deep way. Even though I am not Sicilian by blood, I hold that place deep in my heart. It is part of who I am, and of the people who raised me, loved me, and taught me my greatest love language – how to cook.

When you are adopted, or simply not living in your homeland it is often hard to connect to your ancestral food, to know where to start, to get the right ingredients. I say start simple and find a few recipes you can enjoy and make them for your family often. Note how it makes you feel to make various dishes. Talk about the origins of the recipe with your family, and what it means to you to make it. Ask them how it feels to eat it.

Sicilian Food

When I make and eat Sicilian food it connects me to the people I love, and that is everything for me, in case you didn’t know, I wrote a whole book about food and love. It is kind of a passion.

Sicilian cuisine is some of the best in the world, rich with tradition, and flavor. It is strongly influenced by waves of invasion; the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Byzantines, the Vikings, the Spanish…and that is truly what defines it, and makes it great. What would Sicilian food be like without the invasions?

Just like when you start researching your DNA or learn about the places where your ancestors are from, you realize that even places are fluid depending on who owned it at a particular time, the lines begin to blur a little.

Although I do not live in Sicily, I do live on the other Italian island, the one less well known, Sardinia. In Sardinia the people moved inland, to the mountains to escape invaders, preserving the food traditions of the island for the most part. These Mediterranean islands are very different from one another in that respect, but they also have a common theme, love of the land and the fruits of the land.

Look to the Land

Ancestral foods are important, they help you to connect and stay in touch with your roots, but eating food from the land where you live is equally important, as it helps your body attune to the energy of the place you reside.

In my Modern Peasant Primer, I talk about how the land where you live is an important piece of the puzzle. How it can also help you on your journey. One day you will be someone’s ancestor, and your life and where you lived can provide lessons for them in the future.

The important thing to remember is that many of our ancestors left their homelands for different lands and shores. Often they embraced new cultures and foodways; they learned new languages, and it made a mark on the dishes they prepared and taught their children. This is all a valuable part of who we are.

Caponata

Caponata is one of the quintessential Sicilian dishes. There are many regional varieties, as well as personal recipes. The main component is eggplant, tomatoes and a sweet and sour agrodolce sauce. This is the perfect summer dish because all the components are growing now.

Caponata with it’s sweet and sour sauce nods to an Arab influence, the tomatoes to the Americas and the eggplants to the Roman Empire (eggplant originated in India), olives, and olive oil to the Mediterranean. It is typically served with fish, tuna and swordfish are the most common. I often serve it with sea bass which is more available in Sardinia, or on top of rice or toasted bread. Caponata is best served at room temperature and is better the next day.

I change mine up a little based on the season. At the beginning of eggplant season, in early summer, wild fennel is still growing, so I like to throw some in. During the heat of the summer, peppery oregano might make an appearance. If I make it in the winter, and I sometimes do, I might add some mirto or juniper berries and infuse a little Sardinia into the mix.

Caponata on rice
Caponata

Here is my basic recipe, I hope you enjoy.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1 medium eggplant, diced
  • sea salt
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 (8-ounce) can of plum tomatoes, chopped
  • ½ cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons of sugar
    sea salt & black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
  • ½ cup green olives, pitted and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh herbs (parsley, fennel fronds, or basil)

METHOD

  • Fill a small saucepan with about 2 inches of salted water.
  • Cook the celery until tender, remove from water and set aside.
  • In the meantime salt the diced eggplant and let it sit in a colander over a bowl for about 30 minutes. Then rinse and squeeze out the water.
  • Warm the olive oil in a large skillet or saucepan. Fry the eggplant in the olive oil until golden.
  • Then add the onion and garlic. Sautee until they are golden too.
  • Then add the cooked celery, tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt & pepper.
  • Simmer for about 10-15 minutes.
  • Then add the capers and olives.
  • Add the fresh herbs and taste for seasoning.

*the magazine should be reaching American shelves this fall (2018)

Are any of your ancestral cuisines influenced by other cultures? How? How would the recipes and ingredients be different if there was no outside influence?

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