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Chicken on a Skewer
by Roberta Gangi

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Eat it.It's the second-favourite take-away food in Sicily - after pizza - but rarely mentioned by those who write about food and wine. Almost a kind of localised secret. Chicken on a skewer.

This reminds me of the old saying that somebody who lives in a place rarely visits the sights tourists come to see. This is more a case of tourists not necessarily eating what the locals eat. The point is that chicken on a skewer just doesn't seem particularly "Sicilian." And it's not as photogenic as mounds of pasta served with chunks of vegetables. Or luscious slices of sword fish. Chicken is altogether more humble. It's "at home" food, not restaurant food.

It really isn't that unusual for a popular food to find its home in a specific setting. An American comparison might be made to hot dogs, which (outside ball-parks) are more often served at home barbecues than in restaurants, while hamburgers are ubiquitous. In Britain, fish and chips are - almost by definition - a take-away food.

The popularity of chicken on a skewer is rooted in the traditional role of poultry in Sicilian cuisine. Unlike Tuscany and other regions of Italy, Sicily's love affair with chicken has always been more domestic. There aren't as many recipes for things like chicken breasts cooked in wine, though roasted chicken has always been popular.

As chicken was regarded as a country food prepared and enjoyed at home, where many people raised their own poultry, it never became very popular in restaurants. In fact, actual restaurants and pizzerias were rare in Sicily until the twentieth century. What one usually encountered was the trattoria, an informal setting popular with travellers.

Even some city dwellers raised chickens. This, of course, was before the building boom of the 1950s, which resulted in high-rise structures in Palermo, Catania, Messina and other larger cities. Haute cuisine never quite caught up to Sicilian tastes.

Stands and tiny take-away establishments selling chicken on a skewer began to spring up during the 1960s alongside very informal "family style" pizzerias. (This reflects a constant culinary evolution. More recently, kebabs have become popular in areas such as Palermo's Piazza Olivella.)

Cuisine served locally isn't always "local." A Chinese or Indian restaurant in Sicily is an outpost of foreign cuisine far from its place of birth. But there's nothing un-Sicilian about roasted chicken. Each chef offers a unique combination of spices and seasonings.

The recent economic downturn has seen the opening of numerous pizzerias and chicken stands across Sicily. Traditional - often pricey - restaurants haven't been as successful in recent times. But chickens, the remote descendants of dinosaurs, haven't lost their appeal.

About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.

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© 2010 Roberta Gangi and Best of Sicily