How to cook an authentic Italian Parmigiana?
Every week it is so hard to choose among the Italian regional cooking recipes. There are so many famous dishes to talk about and each one has its own precious history to tell.
An Italian can’t know the histories behind all the single recipes. Actually an Italian can’t know all the regional dishes indeed. Because they are too many! Every region has many dishes and from an area to another within one region you can find a lot of variations of one single recipe.
Last week I wrote about Vincisgrassi. In Le Marche region there are at least 3 ways to prepare them: with white sauce, with ragù and bechamel, with a sauce made of offal and tomatoes. Not to mention the pizza or the focaccia bread. In this week I take you to Sicily (or maybe Naples?!) to taste one Italian delicacy: the Parmigiana alle melanzane.
The origin of the name
The origin of the importance of food in the Italian culture gets lost in the night of times. Today the majority of the Italian regional recipes has an undefined history. Sometimes there are legends related to them and some others you don’t know which region the recipe belongs to.
The Parmigiana alle melanzane is one of this kind of recipes. Probably it is Neapolitan, but more likely its origin is Sicilian. It seems to be born in the western Sicily, an area we are talking about in these days on our blog. Apart from this, the dish is now included in the official Italian traditional agricultural products list created by the Minister that confirms the real importance of the recipe.
Despite aubergines were imported in Europe from Asia thanks to the Arab merchants during the late Middle Ages, these vegetables were used only from the 18th century on firstly among the poor and then among the nobles. Quite like the tomatoes, aubergines were considered poisonous.
Do you know that aubergines and tomatoes are the main ingredients of Parmigiana alle melanzane? As Italians started to use them in cuisine during the 18th century, we can date back the Parmigiana to this period. To be more precise between mid-18th century and the first decades of the 19th century.
It is possible that dishes with a similar preparation already existed before this period, but we are not sure about that and therefore the history of the recipe is quite uncertain. If you search some information about Parmigiana di melanzane you will find this Italian regional cooking recipe comes from Sicily or Naples or even Parma.
Let’s talk about aubergines!
Aubergines come from Persia and thanks to the Turks and Greeks they arrived to Italy, but Andalusia is the first European area where these vegetables arrived. As it already happened for pizza, similar recipes are also made in Greece, Turkey and Arabia.
Aubergines are typical of summer. In fact they grow in a mild climate above 12° C. In summer season there are plenty of recipes made with aubergines in Italy, particularly in Calabria region where aubergine is the king. In Italy we use often aubergines in fatty dishes, such as Parmigiana alle melanzane, because they are able to absorb dietary fats.
Translating the original word of aubergines into Italian a mistake was made: melanzana was confused with mela insana (i.e. insane apple) and they started to believe that aubergines got them insane.
The origin of Parmigiana alle melanzane
If you are Greek or you have spent holiday there, you know for sure what is moussaka. You prepare it with layers interchanging fried aubergines with ragù and covering with a high layer of bechamel sprinkling cheese on top. Crete was easily influenced by Arabs and Turks. As you can see again the Mediterranean countries are strongly connected to each others due to ancient colonizations of this area. This is the reason why it’s not so strange to find similar dishes among them.
To understand why a dish is called in a specific way you have to go back in time.
Many sources tell that Parmigiana comes from Sicily because in the Sicilian dialect there is a word ‘parmiciana‘ that indicates stripes used for a particular window reminding the layers of the dish. Other sources tell that the name takes its origin from the variety of aubergines (‘petronciana‘) used to prepare the recipe. In fact the most famous writer about Italian cuisine, Pellegrino Artusi, mentioned the dish with the name of Petronciana.
Therefore ‘Parmigiana‘, that in Italian language means ‘Parma style’ or ‘coming from Parma’, has nothing to do with the northern city of Parma. The term probably arrived in south Italy thanks to the rulers of the Duchy of Parma, who were in good relationships with the Kingdom of Naples. Moreover the ancient recipe suggests to use Sicilian pecorino cheese. According to those convinced of the Neapolitan origin of Parmigiana, maybe the recipe comes from an older one made of zucchini instead of aubergines.
The certain thing is that the ‘alla parmigiana‘ (i.e. Parma’s style) was used to indicate the presence of Parmesan in the recipe. Sometimes Parmigiana di melanzane is also called melanzane alla parmigiana. When you use ‘alla parmigiana‘ today generally refers to the way of preparing the dish so that you can use zucchini, potatoes, carrots or whatever. The term was born before the second half of the 15th century, but we don’t know exactly if this was used just for the way to prepare dishes or for a specific dish. Furthermore within the Parma area it is less common to find Parmigiana in the restaurant menus compared to southern Italy.
The authentic recipe
Preparing the Parmigiana is quite simple. I mean, if you know how to fry and how to prepare a tomato sauce. Parmigiana is made with aubergines, tomato sauce, grated Parmesan and mozzarella or provola.
Try to imagine the smell of fresh basil and tomatoes, did you? Well, now it’s time to download the real recipe to prepare it on your own subscribing to our #FoodIS newsletter here below. Continue to follow us to discover where we will lead you next time!
Photo credit: Giorgio Smiraglia