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Malta & Sicily! Are these island paradises secretly culinary twins?

Updated: Apr 28

Who does the better cannoli? What we enjoyed in Sicily and why the flavours of food in Malta & Sicily are so similar.

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Nestled in the heart of the Mediterranean, the islands of Malta & Sicily boast a culinary repertoire that is as vibrant and colourful as their storied histories. Their proximity is also what makes it so easy for us Maltese to visit. Short flight or catamaran? Let's go!

Plates of pasta at a dinner table

Both islands are bound by the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea and a proximity that has fostered centuries of cultural exchange. Malta and Sicily share a gastronomic language that speaks of both convergence and divergence in their respective culinary identities.

Pasta dish

With that in mind, a visit to Sicily was on the cards for us, with a plan of trying as much of their various culinary delights as possible. This also prompted us to delve into the similarities of food in Malta & Sicily, and what is special about them.

Ravioli at a restaurant

Geographical Proximity and Historical Bonds

The geographical closeness of Sicily and Malta—merely 90 kilometres at their nearest points—has been a pivotal factor in blending their culinary traditions. Historically, both islands were stepping stones between Europe and Africa, and this strategic position attracted many settlers, invaders, and traders. 

Oranges in a Sicilian market

From the Phoenicians to the Arabs and the Normans to the Spanish, each left a mark on the local foodscapes. This melding of influences is perhaps why Sicilian and Maltese cuisines today echo each other, bearing traces of the other's past.

A Taste of Sicily and Malta: Shared Ingredients and Dishes

At the core of Sicilian and Maltese kitchens is a love for fresh, local ingredients that capture the essence of the Mediterranean diet—olive oil, fresh fish, sun-ripened vegetables, and herbs. 

Olives in a market in Palermo

Sicilian caponata, a sweet and sour eggplant dish, echoes in the Maltese 'kapunata'. Both are typically enjoyed as a cold antipasto, revealing a shared preference for vibrant, tangy appetizers.

Seafood fried

Seafood, an abundant resource in the surrounding waters, plays a starring role in both cuisines. The Sicilian' pasta con le sarde' (pasta with sardines) and the Maltese' torta tal-lampuki' (fish pie made with mahi-mahi) showcase the islands' reliance on and reverence for the fruits of the sea. 

Octopus in a market in Palermo

These dishes not only emphasize the Mediterranean penchant for combining simple ingredients into rich, flavorful creations but also highlight the common culinary practices shaped by the region's geography and climate.

Bread and pastries are integral to both Sicilian and Maltese diets, with each island boasting its array of baked delights. Sicilian 'pane con la milza' (a spleen sandwich that is a street food staple in Palermo) and Maltese' hobz biz-zejt' (a traditional snack of oil-rubbed bread topped with tomatoes, onions, and capers) underscore the rustic, hearty nature of the islands' snack culture. 

Sicilian cannolo

Moreover, with its sweet, creamy filling, the famed Sicilian cannoli finds a cousin in the Maltese 'kannoli', filled with ricotta or, occasionally, a mixture of peas. Which one is better? Tough one. We love both!

Sweets and Spices: A Legacy of the Moors

The influence of the Moors is palpable in the confectionery traditions of both islands. Sicilian desserts like 'cassata', featuring ricotta cheese, and 'marzipan fruits', are mirrored in Maltese sweets such as 'qaghaq ta' l-ghasel' (honey rings) and 'figolli' (almond-filled pastry figures).

Sicilian sweets

These desserts represent the Islamic influence on the islands and a shared historical narrative that reveres almonds, honey, and spices.

Capuccino and pastries

Bar Artale in Sicily. Pastries

Spices, too, are a testament to the historical interplay between Sicily and Malta. Both cuisines employ a bold hand with seasonings like saffron, cumin, and cinnamon, likely a heritage of the spice trade routes that passed through these islands. 

Breakfast in Sicily with figs

These spices are most prominently featured in festive dishes. They are considered essential in replicating the authentic tastes of traditional recipes. A walk around the famous Mercato Ballaro' will give you an idea of how integral spices are in Sicilian cuisine (hope you don't mind the shouting).

The Mercato di Ballarò: A Culinary Showcase

One of Sicily's most captivating experiences is visiting the bustling food markets, with Palermo's Mercato di Ballarò standing out as a quintessential example. This historic market stretches through the narrow streets of Palermo's old quarter, offering a vivid glimpse into the culinary soul of the region.

Market stand in Ballaro, Palermo

Ballarò is the oldest of Palermo's Arab-Norman markets, echoing the city's rich cultural tapestry. It is renowned for its lively atmosphere and the colourful array of produce displayed by the local vendors. Visitors and locals flock here to shop for the freshest ingredients, from vibrant vegetables and fruits to a wide selection of seafood and meats.

The market is not merely a place for groceries; it is a hub of gastronomic activity.

Eggplants in Palermo market

Here, all the elements essential to Sicilian cuisine are available, including local specialities like olives, capers, and the island's famous citrus fruits. The air is rich with the aroma of freshly prepared street foods such as arancini (fried rice balls filled with ragù or cheese), panelle (chickpea fritters), and sfincione (Sicilian pizza).

Ballaro market, Palermo

Ballarò also serves as a cultural gathering spot where the traditional Sicilian way of life is palpably felt. It's a place where the history and present of Palermo converge—where ancient recipes are discussed over counters and new flavours meet old traditions. The market's dynamic energy offers a direct line to understanding the local lifestyle and the importance of food in Sicilian social spaces.

Exploring Ballarò provides a chance to sample the flavours of Sicily but also to participate in the communal spirit that defines these markets. It's a vibrant, chaotic, and utterly charming cornerstone of Palermo, reflecting the heart and soul of the island's culinary heritage.

The Allure of Siracusa: A Culinary and Historical Gem

Siracusa, another jewel in Sicily's crown, offers a unique blend of history and gastronomy that captivates anyone who visits. This ancient city, known for its rich Greek history and stunning architecture, also boasts a vibrant food scene that reflects its cultural layers.

The local market in Siracusa, often bustling with activity, is a treasure trove of Sicilian produce, where vendors proudly display their locally sourced goods.

Spaghetti Nero di Seppia

Siracusa's market encapsulates the essence of Sicilian agriculture and culinary practices, from freshly caught seafood to sun-kissed citrus and hearty vegetables. Here, one can explore traditional dishes such as "risotto al Nero di Seppia" (squid ink risotto).

It also showcases the local seafood or savour the sweetness of "granita," a semi-frozen dessert perfect for Siracusa's warm climate. The city's proximity to the sea and fertile lands ensures abundant fresh ingredients that keep its culinary traditions alive and thriving.

Food from Siracusa market

Visiting Siracusa offers more than just a taste of its food; it's an immersion into a locale where every street and market stall tells a story of convergence between the ancient and modern worlds.

The city not only preserves its historical legacy through its well-preserved ruins and classical structures but also through its food, which is a direct reflection of its past and present, making Siracusa a must-visit for anyone looking to delve deeper into Sicily's diverse and rich cultural tapestry.

Marzamemi: The Captivating Coastal Charm

Marzamemi, a quaint fishing village on the southeastern coast of Sicily, is revered for its picturesque seascapes and vibrant culinary scene. This small but lively village comes alive with the sounds of bustling cafes and the aroma of fresh seafood. 

Marzamemi, Sicily

Known for its tuna fisheries history, Marzamemi has a rich heritage of processing and preserving seafood. This tradition influences its culinary offerings to this day. The village squares, particularly Piazza Regina Margherita, are lined with trattorias and cafes where locals and tourists gather to enjoy fresh dishes and the relaxed Mediterranean atmosphere.

Don Peppinu: A Gelato Haven in Marzamemi

In the heart of Marzamemi, Don Peppinu stands out as a cornerstone of local flavour and craftsmanship. This renowned gelateria has gained acclaim far beyond the borders of Sicily. It is celebrated as one of the best gelaterias in Italy. Don Peppinu is famous for its commitment to quality and creativity, using only the finest local ingredients to craft its gelato. 

Brioche with ice cream, Don Peppinu, Marzamemi, Sicily

The flavours here reflect Sicilian produce, from the rich pistachios grown on the island to the bright citrus that thrives in the Sicilian sun. The awards and accolades Don Peppinu has received are a testament to its excellence and innovation in gelato making, making it a must-visit destination for anyone travelling to Marzamemi. 

Whether you choose a classic flavor or something uniquely Sicilian like almond or fig, a visit to Don Peppinu offers a delicious insight into the art of Italian gelato, served with a view of Marzamemi’s charming coastal life.

The Vineyards of Valour: Wine Traditions in Sicily and Malta

We can't end this article without mentioning wine! whilst in Sicily we visited Di Giovanna Winery, located in Sambuca. Our tip - book yourself a wine tour and tasting, it's worth every cent. Our favourite wine? Camurria Orange. Amazing!

Sicily and Malta's winemaking traditions are as deeply rooted as their culinary counterparts. Both islands boast a rich viticultural heritage that dates back to ancient times. 

Di Giovanna winery barrell

With its varied terrain and microclimates, Sicily is one of Italy's most prominent wine regions. It is known for its robust reds like Nero d'Avola and elegant whites such as Grillo. 

Malta, though smaller, has been gaining recognition for its distinctive wines, particularly the indigenous grape varieties Ġellewża and Girgentina, which produce exceptional reds and crisp whites, respectively.

The connection between Sicilian and Maltese wines extends beyond the grapes to the methodologies and the shared historical influences that have shaped their wine cultures. Among the first to cultivate vines in both regions, the Phoenicians introduced sophisticated agricultural techniques and an appreciation for winemaking. 

Wine pouring during tasting session

This legacy is evident in the modern practices of both islands, where ancient techniques blend with contemporary innovations to create wines of unique character and quality.

Wine festivals and tasting tours are common in both regions, celebrating the local viticulture and offering a platform for winemakers to showcase their creations. These events highlight the quality and diversity of Sicilian and Maltese wines and foster a cultural exchange that continues to enrich the winemaking traditions of each island. 

As both regions continue to evolve and adapt their vineyards, the wines of Sicily and Malta remain a testament to their enduring bond—a flavorful reflection of their shared history and parallel paths in the Mediterranean's lush vineyard tapestry.

Culinary Exchange and Modern Interpretations

The culinary exchange between Sicily and Malta continues in modern times, propelled by tourism and a growing interest in Mediterranean cuisine. Sicilian chefs have embraced Maltese components like ġbejna (a traditional Maltese cheese), incorporating it into salads and pasta, or making amazing cheese platters

Pasta alle sarde

At the same time, Maltese restaurateurs experiment with Sicilian influences, often updating old recipes with new techniques and presentations.

The connection between Sicilian and Maltese food is a vivid illustration of how geography and history shape culinary landscapes. It is a relationship built on shared seas, similar climates, and historical exchanges—each island's cuisine offering a window into the past and a taste of the Mediterranean's bounty.

Pasta dish

As we delve into the flavours of Sicily and Malta, we uncover not just the shared ingredients and parallel dishes but a deeper understanding of how closely intertwined these islands' destinies are. Through their food, we explore a dialogue between cultures, a testament to their interconnected histories and celebrate their distinct yet overlapping culinary identities. 

This gastronomic journey is not just about tasting food but about experiencing the rich tapestry of human civilization that has woven itself through these Mediterranean kitchens.

Birra Messina and aperitivo


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