Arancine (or arancini) are the best known Sicilian street food in Italy and in the world, yet there is no certain information about their origin, nor do we know the name of the chef who invented them.
History of the Sicilian stuffed rice balls
The most widespread theory starts from an analysis of their ingredients and traces their origin back to the High Middle Ages, during the Arab occupation (from the ninth to 11th century AD) that played a large part in influencing history and customs — including food — of Trinacria (present-day Sicily).
The Arabs were responsible for introducing spiced rice, flavored with saffron and served on a large plate placed in the center of the table.
It was accompanied by meat and vegetables, and diners served themselves by taking some rice with their hands and eating it with the accompanying food.
Subsequently, Emir Ibn at-Timnah (known for allying himself with Ruggero di Altavilla to deliver Sicily to the Normans and free it from the Saracen domination) invented timballo di riso, and from there, creating single portion timballos was quick. The ragù filling is traced back to Norman domination, while it seems that the breading was made during the time of Frederick II of Swabia, when he was looking for a way to bring the dish with him on hunting trips. Thanks to the breading and frying, the rice and its filling were perfectly transportable.
According to this theory, arancine can be defined as a very happy synthesis of the various historical influences on this warm and welcoming island.
Even the name arancine can be traced back to ancient Arab culture: all the round meatballs in the Arab world took their names from the fruit they resembled in shape and size. The comparison with oranges was natural in Sicily, since the island has always been rich with them.
One fact refuting this origin theory is that this dish is not mentioned in any texts written prior to the second half of the 19th century, suggesting that arancine’s origin is more recent. The first Sicilian-Italian dictionary recording the word arancinu, that of Giuseppe Biundi, is dated 1857 and describes a sweet — not salty — rice dish made in the shape of an orange.
Ten years later, Traina defined it as a savory dish, though neither meat nor tomatoes are ever mentioned. It is difficult to say when these two ingredients entered the recipe;however, it is known that tomatoes were introduced to the south of the peninsula at the beginning of the 19th century.
In light of these facts, the link between the Sicilian arancine and the Arab tradition no longer seems so certain. Rather, the dish may have been born in the second half of the 19th century as a rice cake that quickly evolved into a salty specialty.
The Arancina festival occurs in Palermo and other parts of Sicily on December 13, the day of Saint Lucia, during which bread and pasta are not consumed, but arancine, panelle, and cuccìa (boiled wheat soup) are eaten and seasoned with extra-virgin olive oil.
If the origins of arancine are uncertain, the derivation of the name is certain: the first arancine, stuffed with ragu and peas, had the round shape and golden color of an orange.
Different types of Arancine
Over time the fillings have differed, and with them also the shapes, in order to distinguish one filling from another: those with meat sauce remain round (in Catania, however, they have a conical shape, to remember Etna), while those with butter, stuffed with mozzarella, cooked ham, and bechamel, are oval.
These are the two classic flavors, to which the inventiveness and traditions of various cities have added others: in Catania there are those alla Norma with fried eggplant, tomato sauce, and salted ricotta and those with pistachios from the nearby Bronte; in the Messina area there are even about thirty variants, which include Sicilian salmon.
In Palermo on the day of Saint Lucia, a sweet version is also prepared, stuffed with gianduia cream (or with chocolate, as happens in Modica) and sprinkled with icing sugar.
In western Sicily, the rice of the arancine is dyed with saffron, while in the eastern part of the island, the golden color comes from slightly cheaper tomato sauce.
A note on the name
So far I have used the female term arancine, but many people instead use the male arancini. This is because in Italian the distinction of gender — in this case, female for orange (arancia) and male for orange tree (arancio) — arose only in the late 20th century. But in the Sicilian dialect, the fruit is aranciu, which in the Italian peninsula becomes, confusingly, arancio.
For the famous Sicilian rice balls, then, arancine (plural of arancina) is considered more correct, because it is derived from the word for orange as opposed to the word for orange tree. However, arancini (arancino), being more popular in Sicily, is also widely accepted.
How to Make Them
1. Cook the Rice
Sicilian cook mixing just boiled rice with butter
2. Place the ingredients on a tray
The making of Sicilian arancini: Italian ragu, peas and cheese cubes placed on the table of a Sicilian cook and the boiled rice in the background
3. How to make the arancini
Hands of cook modeling a typical Sicilian rice arancino in a cone shape
Here’s the shape of the traditional arancino
submerse them in the batter
Cover a typical Sicilian arancino with bread crumbs before frying it
Here’s the traditional shape of the Sicilian ball.
Traditional Arancini Recipe - Sicilian Rice Balls
Arancini, or arancine as Sicilians correctly call these fried risotto balls, are one of the most authentic and world-famous Sicilian street food.
Cut the ham and scamorza cheese into small pieces and mix into the cooled bechamel.
Prepare the ragù:
Chop some of the onion and brown it in the oil, then add peas, cover with water, add salt, and cook for about ten minutes.
Drain and set aside.
Finely chop the carrot, the rest of the onion, and the celery.
Brown them with the bay leaf in extra-virgin olive oil.
Add the two meats and brown them while breaking them up with a wooden spoon, then blend with the white wine.
Allow the liquid to evaporate and then add the tomato pulp and dissolved tomato paste.
Season with salt and cook over low heat for about half an hour, or at least until you get a rather dry ragù.
Remove from the heat and let cool.
Add the drained peas, mix gently, and let cool.
Prepare the arancini:
First, have all the necessary ingredients at hand and equip yourself with trays, racks, etc . The preparation of the arancini is a kind of assembly line that becomes more pleasant, or at least less stressful, if previously organized
Start with the preparation of the lega (batter):
This is the batter of water and flour that serves to seal the arancina and to create a base for breading, which will help to give proper browning, thickness, and crunchiness.
Pour the water into a deep bowl, add the flour and a nice pinch of salt, and mix well with a whisk. Set aside.
Shape the arancine:
With one hand, take a little rice according to the size of the arancina you want
Shape it into a ball for those to be stuffed with meat, and an oval for those with butter.
Place the future arancini on a tray and continue until the rice is finished.
Leave them to rest for half an hour, so that the rice becomes compact, making the filling process easier.
Holding the rice ball with one hand, with the thumb of the other hand, create a hole in the top center and begin to enlarge it by pushing both downward and to the sides.
Place the rice ball back on the tray and move on to the others, until all are completed.
Fill the arancine:
Place the chosen filling inside the hole previously created and close the arancina a little by pushing the dressing downwards and trying to bring the rice forward.
Turn the arancina in your hands to give it its shape and to make the surface smooth and compact, without holes or small cracks.
Place it on the tray and move on to another, until all are completed.
At the end, wash your hands and repeat the operation with the second filling.
Fry the arancine:
Whisk the batter and immerse each arancina individually, then place them on a wire rack set on a tray.
Pour the breadcrumbs into a pan and roll each arancina in the breadcrumbs, pressing them well with your hands to ensure the breadcrumbs stick, to compact the surface of the arancine, and if necessary, to regain their shape a little.
Pour the oil into a fairly tall saucepan.
When the oil is hot (about 390°F*), immerse the arancine for 2-3 minutes or until golden.
For corn oil, be careful not to exceed 445°F, the smoke point of this type of oil. It is important to check in advance what the smoke point of the chosen oil is and to always use a kitchen thermometer. Of course, other types of oil are also fine (extra-virgin olive oil, peanut oil, etc.), as long as you do not exceed the respective smoke point.