Dish of the month: Arancini

What is it?

Arancini are Italian snacks consisting of a ball of rice coated with bread crumbs and then deep fried—a staple of Sicilian cuisine.

Where does it come from?

Much like many other Sicilian dishes, the origin of the arancini has remained clouded with mystery. While the first documented form of arancini dates back to the 19th century, its origins are generally believed to date back to the Arab rule in the 10th century due to the presence of saffron and rice in the dish.

The tale goes that Frederick II of Svevia (the King of Sicily 1198-1250 - he became king at just 4 years old!) thought breading was a simple technique that could be used to preserve rice. As he was forced to many wars and travels due to Christianity, it seemed like a perfect solution to have a crunchy arancini right by his side!

Almost every city in Sicily claims to have been inventors of the dish. In Catania, for example, they claim that the pointed-up cone is reminiscent of Mount Etna.

Where is it eaten?

Arancini is eaten all over Italy, yet considering that almost every city in Sicily claims to have invented it, it is particularly prominent in these areas. In the cities of Palermo, Trapani and Siracusa, arancini are the traditional food of the Feast of Santa Lucia on 13th December. This celebrates the arrival of a grain supply ship on Santa Lucia day in 1646, which relieved the people from a severe famine. To commemorate this day, the typical dessert of boiled wheat and ricotta, the cuccia, is also served.

With the increasing popularity of the arancini, it’s now common for them to be found all year round at most Sicilian food outlets. You’ll quite easily find them in such places in Palermo, Messina, and Catania.

Italian literature has also helped to foster the success of the arancini outside of the Italian sphere. The main character of Andrea Camilleri’s detective novels, Inspector Montalbano, is a renowned lover of the dish. The book series, as well as the television adaptation, has greatly helped build a following in other parts of the world.

Behind the name

Arancino or arancina? We could have a linguistic debate about everything imaginable nowadays.

In Northern Italy, they are called ‘arancini’. Again, the Italian literature influence shines through here as it is believed to derive from Andrea Camilleri’s book, Gli arancini di Montalbano.

However, others believe that the correct name is ‘arancina’ as its shape resembles that of an orange. The link here is that orange in Italian is ‘arancia’. Although the debate widens when we consider that the term for orange in the Sicilian dialect is ‘aranciu’, a male noun.

In simple terms, the island is divided into two ‘schools of thought’:

Western Sicily: arancina

Eastern Sicily: arancino

It’s also important to note that they are not only called ‘arancinis’. In fact, there exist various different terminologies. In the Campania region, it was first introduced into the Kingdom of Naples by the Aragones, who called them 'palle di riso', which quite literally translates as ‘rice balls’. Today, its other names include: sartù, supplì and riso frittata.