Sweet and sour Sicilian Caponata; the origins of the delicious side dish

One single bite is not enough to fully appreciate the Sicily’s sweet and sour caponata. Eat it slowly, savouring every single ingredient, enjoying the aroma of sun-ripened tomatoes, a contrast to its sweet-sour tang. A celebration of Summer, of holidays by the seaside in Sicily. Caponata’s origins are unclear with many interpretations but one thing is certain, you can never get tired of Caponata!

The origins of Caponata

There are three reliable interpretations on how this dish was born, before becoming the sweet and sour caponata that we all know. The first comes from the Latin, the second from the ancient Greeks and the third from an ingredient. Let me explain…
The most ancient interpretation traces back to the term Capto, which in Greek means “to cut” and could refer to the many vegetables involved in the preparation. Interestingly, in the Mediterranean area we can find 37 different recipes and all of them include at least 5 vegetables.


The second interpretation refers to the Latin term Cauponium (tavern), a place where tired sailors went to drink something and eat good food. Their favourite snack was a piece of bread seasoned with capers, garlic, tomatoes, olives and anchovies; the basic ingredients of caponata.
The last theory involves Capone (lampuga). Once upon a time there was a sweet and sour dish made of vegetables and fish, intended perhaps only for the noble, which soon became simpler and suitable for the poor.
Today caponata is considered one of the most delicious side dishes, which can also be eaten as a main dish and is served in every Sicilian restaurant.

Caponata, easier said than done

There are 37 known recipes for caponata, yet the most common are:
• Caponata Catanese: with red and yellow peppers, tomatoes, onions, celery, white olives, capers, extra virgin olive oil, salt and sugar. In some recipes you can find basil and potatoes.
• Caponata Palermitana: with fried purple aubergines, capers, green olives, celery, basil, tomato sauce, onions, almonds or pine nuts, salt, sugar, extra virgin olive oil, vinegar. In winter, when aubergines are not available, they are replaced with artichokes.
• Caponata Trapanese: round aubergines, peppers, celery, red onion, carrots, garlic, green olives from Nocellara del Belice, almonds, capers, tomato pizzutello, extra virgin olive oil, sugar and vinegar.
• Caponata Napoletana: stale bread seasoned with extra virgin olive oil and vinegar, salt, pepper and a little sugar. On the bread place lettuce, endive, boiled stew, cucumber and peppers. A very different recipe from the Sicilian version but equally good.

However, the one and only original recipe involves the use of purple long aubergines, also called “the violet of Palermo”. Its compact flesh lends itself to frying; for the perfect result slice and leave to set in coarse salt for about half an hour. Chop the onions, place over low heat in a pan with a little olive oil and cook until golden. Add the capers, olives and pine nuts and cook for 10 minutes on high heat, stirring continuously; add the diced tomatoes into the pan and cook until the mixture is well blended, having evaporated the excess water. Wash the salt from the aubergines, then dry and cut them into cubes and fry. Drain the excess oil from the aubergines and place them in the prepared mixture, adding celery, vinegar and sugar. Allow the mixture to blend and then cool down before serving.

An explosion of flavours which, can also be found in our Sicily Aperitif food box, best appreciated together with a slice of fresh durum wheat bread.