Tag Archives: caponata

A Caponata Controversy, or How to Piss Off a Sicilian

making my own mischief: caponata with prawns

making my own mischief: caponata with prawns

You gotta love Italians. For a population at times so indifferent to its societal troubles (political corruption, tax evasion, pension reform, pollution, to name a few), they are oddly disposed to rather vocal, even organized indignation when it comes to their food.

A commercial for Star brand dadi, or what we’d call bouillon cubes, is being lambasted these days as an ‘insult to Sicilian cuisine.’ The spot features a Sicilian woman at her stove alongside Tiziana Stefanelli, winner of the second MasterChef Italia, and as the two cheerily proceed with making a Sicilian classic, caponata, one of them adds a (gasp!) Star dado—the source of all the recent uproar. With the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi visible through a background window, the setting is unmistakably Palermo, although many have been quick to point out the housewife speaks nothing like a palermitano (wanting to disassociate, no doubt). Like salt on a wound, she then recites the slogan, Se non c’è il dado non c’è caponata, e se non c’è caponata non c’è famiglia (roughly: ‘Without a bouillon cube there’s no caponata, and without caponata there’s no family’). People are totally freaking out.

The outcry on the web includes a Facebook page called La caponata Siciliana non va profanata (‘Sicilian caponata must not be desecrated’), an outlet for indignant Italians to voice their stance that using a dado in a caponata is both insulting and unnecessary. Some are calling for the commercial to be cancelled. As well, the Star brand’s Facebook page has been filled with critical comments regarding the commercial, while on Twitter the hashtag #savecaponata is getting a fair amount of play.

Protests have come as well in the form of letters to Star’s customer service department, and in several posts on sites and blogs dedicated to Sicilian cooking, with apt doses of wit and brio. I counted at least five bloggers using the adopted slogan alla faccia del dado Star (‘In your face, Star bouillon’). Too many media outlets to count are covering the controversy.

In a post titled Giù le mani dalla mia caponata (‘Hands off my caponata’), journalist and Palermo native Giusi Battaglia, in addition to criticizing Stefanelli for having ‘colluded’ with Star, had this to say (my translation): ‘If there is one thing we Sicilians can be proud of, it is our centuries-long gastronomic culture. A bouillon cube in caponata is like Lucifer in heaven. Period.’ Battaglia says she contacted Stefanelli, citing the latter’s duty to decline such a request from a multinational, calling the whole business ‘dirty’ and detrimental to her credibility. Stefanelli’s response? ‘My husband is Sicilian. I know how to make caponata. The bouillon cube helps to bring all the flavors together, especially for amateur cooks.’

Meanwhile, the Star group’s response has been simple: ‘In this spot we are showing one interpretation of the recipe, one which can be personalized, as with the addition of other ingredients.’ Actually, caponata does vary throughout southern Italy. Some versions include artichokes, others fish, or peeled whole tomatoes instead of tomato sauce, and so on. Yours truly recently made a version of caponota with prawns. So, in theory, Star’s defense is sensible. Recipes change. Variations abound.

But no one’s having it. The frenzy over this spirited dado debate—which at its core seems to me not about adding or varying an ingredient but rather the lowly bouillon cube itself, widely considered a culinary shortcut of poseurs and dilettantes—continues to gain steam and yield evermore imaginative responses. The folks at StrEat Palermo recently posted a video in which they explain how the bouillon cube can be used in another Palermo specialty, pani câ meusa, a sandwich made from veal organs. It’s pretty funny. Still others are advocating for reason and good sense, summed up by a comment I saw recurring across various media: Hasn’t Sicily got other things to worry about?

Caponata with Eggplant & Prawns

the Sicilian dish caponata is eggplant-based, in some versions made with fish or shell-fish

Ingredients for 4 to 6 people

3 eggplants
20-24 prawns / circa 450-500 grams of meat once shelled
1 large red bell pepper
2 large tomatoes
1 red onion
2 or 3 cloves garlic
2 Tbls chopped fresh parsley
olive oil & salt


Peel 1 eggplant entirely and the other 2 partially (in strips) and dice all three into about ¾ inch cubes. Transfer to a large platter or large baking dish and lightly sprinkle all the cubes with salt. Let rest for 15 minutes. (I don’t always purge/bleed eggplant, by the way. If the veg is super fresh, you could actually skip this step.) In the meantime you can prep the other ingredients.

Peel and de-vein the prawns if needed. When they are cleaned you should have at least 450 grams of meat.

Score and boil the tomatoes for 5 minutes. Remove them from the water and let cool.

Thinly slice the onion. Peel and smash the garlic cloves. Clean and finely chop the pepper. Chop the parsley.

The eggplant will have bled out its liquid after about 15 minutes. Drain off what liquid you can and pat off some liquid with paper towels if necessary.

Cover the bottom of a very large pan generously with olive oil and heat. When the oil is very hot, add all the cubed eggplant and toss immediately to cover the pieces with oil. Cook on medium-high heat for at least 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The eggplant will shrink as it cooks, releasing more liquids and softening, which makes getting the ‘right’ texture a bit tricky. I think this is a matter of personal taste. Some say the eggplant in a caponata should be crisp (good luck with that); others prefer a softer texture. I judged mine to be ready when the eggplant was soft and tender. Scoop out the eggplant and place in bowl.

Peel and deseed the tomatoes, which should be cool now. Smash up the pulp and set aside.

Turn the pan back on medium-high. Add another tablespoon or two of oil if necessary. Add the onion and cook until soft, then add the garlic and pepper and cook until soft, then add the tomato, turn the heat to low, and stir well. Now add the prawns, making sure they cook in contact with the bottom of the pan. Turn after a few minutes or when they are cooked on one side. Cook another few minutes and now add the eggplant to the pan. Stir all very well and correct for salt. Add the parsley, gently combine, and let rest for a few minutes before serving.