Arancine (rice balls) were invented in the tenth century during the
Kalbid rule of Sicily. Stuffed with meat and coated with a light, crispy
batter, rice balls are similar to foods based on recipes known in the Middle
East during the Middle Ages. Their Italian name comes to us from the word
for orange (arancia), which they faintly resemble in colour and texture.
Nowadays the arancine made in western Sicily are round while those made
in eastern Sicily (particularly around Catania) are often conical.
This all seems fairly simple, though preparing arancine (or arancini)
well is something of an art. But how did rice arrive in Sicily in the first
place? It's certainly not grown here today. Rice (as well as oranges) was
introduced during the Arab period. Of course, rice cultivation requires
water. The Arabs built innovative and very efficient irrigation systems in Sicily, but the island was naturally grrener then. The climate was cooler and there were larger forests. There were also more streams that flowed
year round (instead of the run-off torrents seen today), navigable rivers
and natural lakes. In such an environment the Arabs revolutionised agriculture and introduced crops such as cotton and sugar cane.
The cultivation of rice in Sicily had no connection with rice farming
in Piedmont, a sub-alpine region of northern Italy where arborio and other
rice varieties are still grown. The introduction of rice in Sicily parallels
that in Spain.
Arancina rice is flavoured and coloured with saffron. Though cultivated
in antiquity in Greece and Sicily, the widespread use of this yellow spice
was more prominent in medieval Arab cuisine, and is used in preparing paella,
a Spanish rice dish. (Saffron was also used as a pigment in medieval painting.)
Arancine are formed of cooked and flavoured rice shaped around a core
of chopped meat filling. The balls are then coated and deep fried to a crisp.
Arancini are not the only crispy fried Sicilian food introduced by the Arabs.
Pannelle come to mind. These are flat cakes made with ceci flour.
Rice balls are the golden jewel in the crown of Sicilian cuisine.
About the Author: Palermo native Francesca Lombardo is Best of Sicily's resident wine expert. She has written a book about Sicilian street food.