Sicilian Caponata

Caponata, a traditional dish of aubergine, onion, celery and tomatoes, is Sicily’s national dish, which, when made well, epitomizes Sicilian cooking.


Sicily is incredibly rich in fruit and vegetables, and the caponata illustrates the diversity of this island sitting at the crossroads of Italian and Arab cultures: Sicilians take great pride in the fact it is made with produce in such plentiful supply on their own island. With its beautiful rich red tones of tomato, it’s a vibrant, colourful dish that can be enjoyed hot or cold, but if staying true to its roots, should be eaten at room temperature.

Sicily is incredibly rich in fruit and vegetables, and the caponata illustrates the diversity of this island sitting at the crossroads of Italian and Arab cultures: Sicilians take great pride in the fact it is made with produce in such plentiful supply on their own island. With its beautiful rich red tones of tomato, it’s a vibrant, colourful dish that can be enjoyed hot or cold, but if staying true to its roots, should be eaten at room temperature.

To many with fond childhood memories of the dish, caponata is the ultimate comfort food, spooned straight from the bowl onto crisp bruschetta, tender, but not mushy. Some will remember eating it direct from little cans – Italian company Progresso’s canned caponata is an oily version of the classic dish that is certainly convenient, but can’t touch the homemade version.

Often mistakenly described as an aubergine stew, an authentic caponata is in fact a cooked salad, each individual ingredient clearly discernable. Made well, a good Sicilian caponata should have a lovely, creamy texture and a beautiful rainbow of colours, from the glossy purple skin of aubergine to the shiny red of the bell peppers and the ripe tomatoes. This slow, deliberate layering of many flavours requires time as well as patience, but it’s all worth it, transporting you to a late summer day gazing at the Ionian Sea.

Caponata utilises a traditional sweet and sour sauce used in the Italian kitchen, agro dolce (agro means sour, dolce, sweet), made with vinegar and sugar and believed to have been brought to Sicily many centuries ago by the Arabs. With the optional addition of olives, capers, basil, raisins and pine nuts to caponata, the Arab influence is clear.

The dish is thought to date from the ninth century, when the aubergine is believed to have been introduced to Sicily by the Saracens. Back then however it was not made with tomatoes, as they were brought over to Europe by the Spanish much later, in the 1500s; caponata in its current form has been a staple of southern Italy since the 18th-century.

The Sicilian caponata makes a great cold antipasto starter as well as a delicious main dish for vegetarians, but is typically served today as a side dish for fish dishes. It’s also an ideal bet for a dinner party, as you can easily make it the night before and the flavours just keep on getting better when left overnight.

A versatile vegetable, the aubergine should however be treated with tender care. If you can, try to find a nice, firm one with few or no seeds, and don’t cut the pieces too small. Always let the salted, cubed aubergine sit for a while before you start cooking; some people leave it an hour, others manage with less. The aubergine has a tendency to soak up the olive oil like a sponge, but try not to let it absorb too much, as it will become too heavy and lose its creamy flavour and firm texture.

Enjoy a good caponata, hot or cold, with fresh, crusty Italian bread or another regional favourite, polenta.

Sicilian Caponata Photo By Massimoweb – Creative Commons License