JACKI LYDEN, host:
WEEKEND EDITION food commentator Bonny Wolf visited the Mediterranean recently and while there found a Sicilian surprise.
BONNY WOLF: I went for the Greek and Roman ruins, not for the food. I thought it would be what I affectionately call New Jersey Italian heavy tomato sauces. So, imagine my surprise when I tried the national dish of Sicily. Pasta con le sarde is fresh sardines and pine nuts, currants, saffron and fennel. Huh?
Sicily has been conquered by every civilization since the ancient Greeks. Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish and French all added a little something to a native Mediterranean diet already a few thousand years ahead of its time. Plus, nature brings a lot to the table.
Under the hot Sicilian sun, grapes, fava beans, artichokes, leeks, tomatoes and loads of oranges and lemons thrive through the long growing season. Capers the size of olives grow out of cracks in ancient amphitheaters. Greek ruins are overgrown with wild fennel.
The Greeks brought their love of fish to this island bordered by three seas. Tuna and swordfish are staples but you also find squid stuffed with fava beans, pasta with dried tuna roe mint and tiny strawberries or a sauce of cuttlefish and pistachios.
The Romans brought wheat and the Spanish added tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. But the Arabs who came in the 9th century AD left the deepest culinary imprint. For one thing, they brought eggplant. Major gift. The number of Sicilian eggplant dishes is stunning fried, braised, stuffed.
Sicilian caponata, a sweet-and-sour eggplant dish with celery, olives, capers and tomato sauce, may be the best thing I've ever eaten. Honey was the sweetener of choice. Then the Arabs brought sugar cane. The Sicilians never looked back.
Pastry shop windows are loaded with life-like marzipan fruits, cannoli and cookies with pine nuts, sesame seeds and pistachios. A lot of sweets are made in convents and monasteries with oddly irreverent names like the pistachio buns called chancellor's buttocks, tarts named virgin's breasts or the elaborate cake called triumph of gluttony. Gelato in brioche can be breakfast in Sicily.
But this banquet has coexisted with abject poverty. So, at the end of the 19th century, millions of southern Italians - many from Sicily - emigrated to America. Without familiar ingredients, they improvised and created an Italian-American cuisine, and one more nation adds to Sicily's rich stew pot.
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LYDEN: Bonny Wolf is working on a book about another seashore, the foods of Maryland's Eastern Shore.
This is NPR News.