The relish on my plate is Sicilian, a tangy blend of sweet and sour flavors. I can pick out some of the ingredients—eggplant, capers, celery—right away. I haven’t a clue, however, about the forces that came together to create this exquisite vegetable dish.
Gaetano Basile, a writer and lecturer on the food and culture of Sicily, does know. He has invited me to Lo Scudiero, a family-run restaurant in Palermo, as a tasty introduction to the island’s food and its history. He explains that the appetizer I am eating, caponata, exists because of transformative events that took place more than a thousand years ago. It was then that Arab forces invaded, bringing new crops, agricultural know-how, and other innovations that were far above the standards of medieval Europe.