If you’ve never been to Sicily and you’ve never tried the world famous Caponata, then you’re missing out. Caponata is probably one of the most popular Sicilian dishes in the world. It’s made with diced vegetables, mostly aubergines, seasoned with tomato sauce, celery, onions and capers in an agro dolce sauce.
If you want an understanding of Sicily, taste this dish as it represents the very heart and soul of the Island with all its Greek, Arab and Spanish influences. Its origin is quite complex and strongly influenced by the cuisines of the countries that dominated the island during the centuries.
There are several legends around the origin of the name. Some believe that it comes from the Greek word “Capto” which literally means to cut. In fact, one of the most important characteristics of this recipe is the presence of different vegetables cut into small pieces. Others instead affirm that the word origins from the Latin “Caupona / Cauponium” which means Tavern, the place where sailors would rest after work, drink a glass of wine and eat a classic, simple dish made with vegetables and seasoned with oil and vinegar.
However, many prefer the third explanation of the name, which is based on the Mediterranean fish Capone, that was often served as a soup with vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce. This version was quite expensive and often cooked exclusively for the aristocracy; that’s why the lower classes replaced the fish with the aubergine creating a frugal and inexpensive dish that made its way into people’s hearts. At the time, the caponata was used as a main course accompanied by bread, while today it is served as a starter or as a side dish.
This recipe started to become popular across the world after 1869, when the Pensabene family started its industrial production in a small factory in Palermo. They were storing the caponata in small tins made by hand and started to export it all over the world. It quickly became popular in the USA thanks to the presence of many Sicilian families who had moved to the United States in search of work.
People from Sicily are very fond of this recipe and if you were to ask them how they make Caponata, they would all give you different answers. Every family has its own way of making it, each recipe is passed on from generation to generation. Currently there are 37 different varieties of this dish all officially recognized in Sicily. The version from Palermo is probably the most famous, made with diced aubergine and whole pitted olives. In Agrigento they like to add to the aubergine fried peppers, tomato, onion, olives, capers and basil; In Trapani they like to make it with roasted almonds while In Catania they like to use pine nuts and fresh basil … there’s no right or wrong, it’s all Caponata and it’s all incredibly good.
With this dish the possibilities are endless. The aubergine could be fried, sautéed or steamed. It could be served on a slice of toasted bread, on its own as a starter or as a side dish to accompany fish or meat. Its versatility and simplicity always meets everyone’s taste.
You can try the Delita version of the Caponata made with soft aubergines, Sicilian capers and oregano scented olives, stewed with a light base of onion, celery and cherry tomatoes. One thing is for sure, somewhere in Italy an Italian mom and an Italian grandma are making their favourite Caponata recipe as we speak.