Palermo, the capital of the Italian island of Sicily, at the heart of the Mediterranean, has been a crossroads between cultures for centuries and continues to do so today.
Sicily is one of the southern-most points of Europe and the different conquerors and cultures which reigned there have all left a mark – not least on the food.
“I think every culture, every people that has come here and that has conquered Sicily has left its imprint – not only on the architecture but also on the cooking,” says food historian Mary Taylor.
Back in 827CE, the Arabs sailed across the Mediterranean from the shores of present-day Tunisia, and after four years they conquered Palermo.
“When the Arabs arrived, Palermo was abandoned … previously there were many invasions and conflicts. The Arabs came with their architecture, they turned the city into a capital,” Giovanni Franzitta, an architect in Palermo, says.
The city’s architecture bears traces of its Arab legacy, and so does the cuisine. Ingredients, some of which are the cornerstone of Sicilian cooking like oranges, lemons and aubergines, were introduced to the island by its Arabs conquerors.
One of the most popular desserts in Sicily is the Cassata, a sponge cake filled with ricotta cheese and topped with candy fruits – the name itself is of Arab origin, quas’ta, a big round pan in which it is made.
The island is home to one of the world’s most distinctive and delicious street food cultures, built on layers of foreign influences from centuries of exchange with Arabs, Greeks, Romans and Normans.
And although Sicilians have a long tradition of eating on the go, this doesn’t often extend to modern-day fast food. The usual fast food outlets can be found in Palermo but few beyond tourists and teenagers eat there regularly.
In fact, there is a national group, the slow food movement, which makes a stand against fast food outlets, and promotes local and traditional food production.
“Slow food is an association, a movement, a way of life … the knowledge of cooking is in the hands of our grandparents, of older people, but, within 15 to 20 years, we risk losing everything. Slow food is trying to save the way food is prepared, as well as the way it is produced,” Francesco Pensovecchio, a member of the slow food movement explains.
Sicilian food is well known around the world, but Sicily is also famous for something else, the mafia – a secret criminal organisation that spreads its tentacles into all parts of society.
“The mafia is an organisation that tells you where to go, what to eat, how to dress, what you should buy, the mafia can influence the strategic decisions of the Republic,” Antonino Iannazzo, the mayor of Corleone, says.
The presence of the mafia is still very strong in many parts of Sicily. But organised crime is not the only challenge that Palermo is facing. As the city is growing, some are worried about losing Palermo’s cultural heritage to modern urban development.
Due to high unemployment rates, many young Sicilians are looking for jobs abroad. But while some Sicilians leave to find work, foreigners from developing countries make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in search of a better life. So Palermo is still a gateway between east and west, north and south, and the city continues to make a virtue of the diversity.
In this episode of Street Food, we explore how in a city where cooking is an art form, past influences and modern challenges have an effect on the local cuisine.
Editor’s note: This film was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English in 2008.