With a delicious blend of Italian and Arab influences, there’s much more to Sicilian food than meets the eye – as chef Ben Tish’s new cookbook proves.
You might think that Sicilian food = Italian food, but there’s a little more to it than that. Although much of Sicily’s cuisine is similar to that of the Italian mainland, the region’s complex history – and its location in the heart of the Mediterranean – means that elements of Spanish, Greek, French and Moorish food can all be found in its dishes.
One chef who has always been fascinated by Sicily’s mixture of robust simplicity and vivid glamour is chef Ben Tish. In 2019, he opened Norma, a three-storey Sicilian restaurant with Moorish influences in central London, which has become a must-visit thanks to its punchy flavours, glowing interiors and glittering seafood bar.
In his latest cookbook Sicilia: A Love Letter To The Food Of Sicily, Tish explains that the various occupations of the island over the centuries – most notably by the Moors and the Berbers – had a dramatic effect on Sicilian cuisine, with citrus fruits, almonds, dates, pistachios, pomegranates and saffron “mixing harmoniously with the simple indigenous olives, vines and wheat”.
“When asked what it was that first made me fall for Sicily and its glorious cuisine, I say it was the beautiful nature of the Arab-Italian fusion and the way it perfectly reflects the muddled nature of modern life,” Tish says.
Below, Tish shares three standout Sicilian recipes that will transform cupboard staples into culinary masterpieces. If warm weather turns you into a tomato fiend (just us?), you’ll want to try the Aeolian-style summer salad. Inspired by a cluster of islands just north of Sicily (famed for their excellent tomato-growing conditions), this simple dish celebrates everything there is to love about the vine-ripened fruit.
Fancy switching up your standard fish and chips? Give Tish’s crusted sea bream a whirl. Moist fish is coated in breadcrumbs, cut with ground almonds for a unique nutty flavour, then deep-fried to golden perfection and sprinkled with fragrant thyme-infused oil. Tish also recommends dotting vinegar on top for a piquant hint of UK seaside flavour.
Finally, if you like your puddings zesty, you’ll love Tish’s Sicilian lemon cream. Combine mascarpone and double cream for an indulgent yet fresh take on this simple posset-style dessert. Tish goes heavy on the lemon juice for an after-dinner hit of mouth-tingling freshness, and finishes with a sprinkle of rich, aromatic berries.
Trust us – these recipes are the simplest way to guarantee a slice of Mediterranean sun this summer.
Aeolian-style summer salad
Ben says: “This dish is all about the tomatoes. It’s hard to perfectly replicate a delicious, fresh salad from Sicily’s Aeolian islands when in the UK, yet we produce many delicious varieties of tomatoes that will stand up well in comparison. I’d use a plum vine or a bull’s heart tomato – ensure they are ripe, but not over ripe. I like to use a sweet-sour grape must (saba) for the dressing, which is smoother and fruitier than a vinegar, but an aged balsamic will also do nicely.”
- 10 medium-sized, medium-ripe, sweet red tomatoes (vine-ripened are best), sliced into rounds
- 2 tbsp plump capers
- 2 handfuls of pitted green olives
- 2 tropea onions or small red onions, finely sliced
- 6 anchovies in oil, chopped
- 1 tbsp oregano leaves
- 10 basil leaves, torn
For the vinaigrette:
- 2 tbsp saba (grape must) or balsamic vinegar
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Whisk together the grape must and extra virgin olive oil. Season to taste.
To assemble the salad, carefully arrange the tomato slices on a serving plate and sprinkle over the capers, olives, onions, anchovies and herbs. Season well, then drizzle over the vinaigrette.
Leave the salad for 5 minutes, so all the flavours come together, before serving.
Sea bream with almond and breadcrumb crust, vinegar and thyme
Ben says: “Sicilians love a coating of breadcrumbs on their fish (and meat) and in this recipe it not only gives a reassuring crunch but also ensures the fish is kept deliciously moist and juicy. The vinegar, traditionally a preservative to extend the shelf life of less than fresh fish, adds a lovely piquant flavour. Ensure the vinegar is of very good quality and use a sweeter variety such as a chardonnay.”
- 4 large sea bream fillets, skin lightly scored
- 100ml sweet white wine vinegar (e.g. chardonnay or moscatel vinegar)
- 100g panko breadcrumbs
- 40g ground almonds
- plain four for dusting
- 1 free-range egg, beaten
- extra virgin olive oil for cooking
- ½ small handful of thyme
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the fish fillets in a bowl, season well and pour over about 75ml of the vinegar. Leave to marinate in the fridge for an hour.
Drain off the vinegar and dab the fillets dry. Mix the breadcrumbs with the ground almonds. Dredge the fillets in flour, then dip into the egg and coat with the breadcrumb-almond mix.
Heat a large sauté pan over a medium heat. Pour in olive oil for shallow frying – you’ll need a good amount, perhaps 1cm in depth.
When the oil is hot carefully lay the fish, skin side down, in the pan and fry for 3 minutes or until golden brown and crunchy. Turn the fish over, add the thyme sprigs and continue to fry for a further 2–3 minutes or until cooked through and golden brown.
Pour the remaining vinegar over the fish, then remove the fillets from the pan to drain on a kitchen towel. Serve hot with the thyme-infused oil and vinegar pan dressing spooned over.
The hot, crunchy bream fillets are delicious with the contrast of the Aeolian-style summer salad.
Sicilian lemon cream with stewed mulberries or blackberries
Ben says: “Unlike similar puddings that use flours for thickening, this very simple posset-style pudding really showcases the zingy, fragrant flavour of the lemons. The mix of cream and mascarpone is not only rich and indulgent, but fresh too. Unwaxed lemons will give the best flavour.
“I like to make this in the early winter months when Sicilian and Amalfi lemons are bursting into season. Mulberries aren’t as common in the UK as they are in Europe but if you can find them, perhaps in a Middle Eastern supermarket or a specialist fruiterer, they are utterly delicious. They resemble an elongated blackberry with denser flesh and a singular sweet-sour aromatic flavour. Blackberries will make a very good alternative.”
For the lemon cream:
- 2 large unwaxed lemons with unsprayed leaves
- 150g caster sugar
- 150ml double cream
- 300g mascarpone
For the berries:
- 250g mulberries or blackberries
- 150ml good red wine
- 60g golden caster sugar
- 1 tbsp honey
Zest the lemons and squeeze the juice; you need 80ml juice. Put the lemon zest and 80ml juice in a saucepan with the sugar. Heat over a medium-low heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved completely. Remove from the heat and keep warm.
In a separate pan, heat the cream and mascarpone over a medium-low heat, bringing just to a simmer – do not let it boil (otherwise it may separate).
Remove from the heat, add the lemon mixture and whisk. Cool slightly, then strain through a fine sieve into bowls.
Cool completely, then leave in the fridge for at least 8 hours or until firm and chilled.
While the lemon cream is chilling, prepare the stewed berries. Place the fruit in a saucepan, just cover with water and add the wine, sugar and honey.
Bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes or until the fruits are very tender but still holding their shape.
Use a slotted spoon to remove the fruits from the liquid to cool. Boil the remaining liquid until syrupy. Let this cool, then pour over the berries. Chill.
To serve, spoon some of the berries on to each cream. Delicious with biscotti.
From Sicilia: A Love Letter To The Food Of Sicily by Ben Tish (£26, Bloomsbury), out now
Photography: Kris Kirkham