The Edible Legacy That Arabs Left in Southern Italy

From ingredients like hard durum wheat that led to the development of pasta to the use of nuts in sweets, the food of Puglia is what it is because of Arab influence.

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Apr 29 2016, 4:00pm

Foto von giuseppemilo via Flickr

A Sunday afternoon walk around the center of Lucera, a village in southern Italy's Puglia province, isn't exactly a rollicking ride. Yes, there are centuries-old mansions, quaint water fountains, and one big cathedral on a deserted square, but rare is the town around here that doesn't have those. There aren't even any Italians on the streets to look at—they're all indoors having lunch and a nap.

It's Lucera's history as the last Arab Muslim colony on Italy's mainland that distinguishes it from the other sleepy towns in the rolling Pugliese countryside. Forcibly relocated from Sicily, where Arab pirates known as Saracens had settled and lived for 400 years, Lucera's new inhabitants lived for 75 years practicing Islam, craftsmanship, and agriculture before their city was sacked in 1300 by Christian forces caught up in a Crusader frenzy. That unremarkable cathedral in the square? It was built the same year the Arabs were expelled, on the grounds of a destroyed mosque.

The mosque may have been destroyed, but the Arab legacy lives on in the food culture of southern Italy. The influence is clear: from ingredients like hard durum wheat that led to the development of pasta, Italian food's holiest of holies, to methods of preparation, like stuffed meats and vegetables, or the use of nuts in sweets. The food of Puglia (the heel of Italy's boot) is what it is because of Arab influence.

Sicily, and the unique cuisine that developed there, was the intermediary between this culture collision, food historian and cookbook author Clifford Wright points out. "Of the Italian food preparations that are Arab-derived," he says, "it's probable that the influence is from Arab Sicilians," drawing from the innovative agricultural techniques of the period, "rather than Arab invaders" from the Levant and North Africa that preyed on the coastline for centuries. These raids led to isolationism, which in turn led to a vastly diverse cuisine even within Puglia, says Rome-based food journalist Katie Parla.

In the medieval port town of Trani, on Puglia's Adriatic side, I breakfasted on sfoliatelle and fresh blood orange juice. Sfoliatelle is a shell-shaped pastry common throughout the region, filled with ricotta, pieces of candied orange peel, and sometimes a bit of almond paste. The combination of nuts and fruit with sugar was introduced to this part of Italy by Arab colonists in the 9th century, says Wright. Parla echoes this, describing Pugliese confectionery as often featuring dried fruit and being "super sugary." Prior to the Arab influence, she says, "cooked wine must [freshly pressed juice] and honey were used as sweeteners."

Arab agriculturalists also introduced the orange tree to Europe, by way of Sicily. The best oranges still come from Sicily, confirms the jolly Mario Batali-esque waiter at the breakfast bar, in a booming voice that causes the other patrons to look up from their cappuccinos.

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Photo by the author.

Fabrizia Lanza, a curator and gastronomist who runs a cooking school in the Sicilian countryside, wastes no time in answering my question about the major similarities between Sicilian and southern Italian cuisine. "Pasta!" she nearly shouts down the phone. "There's a lot of similarity in the pasta preparations—it's the cucina povera, food of the poor. We use breadcrumbs, garlic, and maybe a little meat ... nothing is wasted."

The Arabs introduced durum wheat to Sicily in the 9th or 10th century. Its hardness and high gluten content meant that its products, like pasta and couscous, could be stored for long periods. "This literally changed the world," writes Clifford Wright, in "reducing the severity of the famines that periodically attacked the people of the Middle Ages."

The other earth-shattering thing about pasta is that it's delicious, even if you dress it with the meager contents of a peasant's cupboard. Throughout Puglia I ate pasta e ceci: broken, irregular pasta pieces—the odds and ends of yesterday's tagliatelle—with chickpeas and onions in broth. In Lecce, near the very tip of Italy's chunky heel, the dish was sexed up with spicy peppers and strands of deep-fried pasta on top. It was the best kind of peasant gruel: lusty, cheap, and nourishing.

The best meal I had in Italy was a simple fish soup in Gallipoli, a sunny village on the Gulf of Taranto where at least one Camorra boss kept his super yacht docked (according to journalist Roberto Saviano). I was shown to a huge case of seafood; adorable langoustines, cross-eyed bottom-feeders, and slices of eel that must have been the size of pythons reposed in a chilly still life that I felt the strange urge to paint. The cook added bright orange mussels and thumbnail-sized clams to my selection, and the whole thing was sent out in a spicy, garlicky tomato sauce that I was happy to smell like for the next few hours.

The southern Italian one-pot meal, such as this zuppa di pesce, is often cited as having derived inspiration from an Arabic tradition, says Wright: "Many times [the Sicilian version] is prepared in an earthenware vessel which to this day carry Arab-derived names." However, he stresses, this may not be enough to establish a definitive link. "Most medieval people did not eat in courses, and all meals were one-pot meals," he says.

The history of cuisine is not a science. It's inspired by folklore, rivalry, and religion, among many other things that are easily influenced by human emotion. The markers of what characterize a dish as Arabic derived "can be quite ephemeral," says Wright.

Fabrizia Lanza concurs when she rhetorically asks, "What does Arab mean? The more I read about it the more confused I get. We love bitter food in Sicily, but if you give something bitter to a newborn baby they will spit in your eye. A sense of taste is something built in the mind as one grows up, and it's the same with food culture."

They're not eating pasta e ceci in Beirut, where I'm writing this, nor do grandmothers in Bari serve hummus for Sunday lunch. The common gastronomic threads that connect these two regions may be folklore—but the food sure tastes better if we believe it.