Sicilian caponata history
Sicilian caponata is a traditional Sicilian dish with a history dating back thousands of years. There are stories about a similar dish of vegetables ( not eggplant), oil and vinegar among the ancient Romans, but it is far from modern-day caponata. Thus, it was originally a very simple dish consumed mostly by the lower classes.
It was only during Spanish domination that caponata became an aristocratic course and was also enriched with various fish. We are still far from today’s recipe with eggplant , rather the protagonist was, often, capone, a fish seasoned with a sweet-and-sour sauce. Possibly the name of caponata could be derived from this fish.
Another version of caponata is found in Ippolito Cavalcanti’s culinary treatise. According to him, caponata was prepared with slices of toasted bread soaked in oil, white vinegar, salt and pepper and then seasoned with herbs, escarole and lettuce. Finally, fish was added, but there is no mention of capone fish (goat fish).
However, it is obvious that still in Cavalcanti’s time the recipe for caponata was very different from today’s. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Antonino Traina’s Sicilian-Italian vocabulary, published in 1860, describes caponata as “delicacy where fish, “petronciani” (a name for a type of eggplant) or artichokes and other seasonings go in, and it is mostly eaten cold.”
The most complete version, however, involved the use of many more ingredients such as: eggplant, artichokes, celery, peppers, olives, garlic, onion, capers, salt, oil, and you could add baby octopus, swordfish, lobster, and chopped almonds. And then, to complete the dish the ever-present sweet and sour flavor of tomato sauce with the addition of vinegar and sugar. The use of sugar and vinegar gives this dish that Arab-derived sweet and sour flavor that makes it unique.
There are so many variants spread throughout Sicily. Certainly, the best-known recipe in the world is the one from Palermo, with the eggplant cut into equal-sized chunks and the olives whole, crushed and pitted.
The Trapani recipe is also well known, and until a few decades ago the Trapanians used to add the less valuable parts of the tuna to the caponata, since Trapani, is closely linked to the tradition of tuna fisheries. Today in the Trapanese caponata, fish is completely absent, in favor of eggplant. The elimination of fish confirms the claim of the poorer recipe over the aristocratic one.
It is only in recent decades that the presence of fish has been eliminated, even if a popular variant at present is “swordfish caponata,” with fish chunks added to the other ingredients.
Caponata today is considered the ‘queen’ of popular cuisine, and there are at least 37 different recipes throughout history. Some of these are:
- That of Palermo, which is the simplest and most classic version, in which the ingredients are eggplant, green or white olives, onion, celery, capers, tomato sauce, oil, salt, vinegar and sugar. In some variations, basil, pine nuts and grated toasted almonds are added.
- The one from Agrigento, in which the ingredients are eggplant, arramascati peppers, tomato, white or red onion, celery, black olives, capers, vinegar, honey, sugar, garlic, oil and chili pepper, basil, pine nuts or almonds, dried raisins.
- That of Catania, which is distinguished from the other caponatas by the predominance of eggplant and tomato, combined with pine nuts and fresh basil;
- That of Trapani, with eggplant, pepper, onions, ripe tomatoes, celery, green olives, capers, vinegar and sugar, toasted almonds.
- That of Messina, same as the Palermo version, the only difference being that peeled tomato replaces concentrate.
Some of the tastiest reinterpretations of caponata include versions with artichokes and even apples. “Caponatina” is a Catanese variation without sweet and sour sauce and with the addition of potatoes, caciocavallo cheese, and white wine and vegetables are cut into smaller chunks. In this variants the ingredients are not fried but baked in the oven.
Once considered a main dish to be eaten with lots bread, today it is used as a side dish or appetizer and is included in the list of traditional Sicilian Agri-food Products (P.A.T).
Just as there are many variations to the original recipe, in the same way it is possible to think of many customizations to enrich the taste of Sicilian caponata. The addition of pine nuts or bitter cocoa, for example, will make your dish even more original and flavorful.
Follow our recipe to prepare the original eggplant caponata.