I first tasted this classic New England meal, appropriately enough, in the food hall of Harrod’s in London, many years ago. It was a revelation. It has a timeless wildness to it, that speaks of a life lived outdoors and long ago, and of the fireplace and hearth, the warmth of home in a rugged country. This is a meal created by rural working folks and those who hunted and labored in the outdoors and in the garden.
Beginning in the late 1800s, the commercial fishing fleet out of San Francisco’s North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf was dominated by Italian fisherman, usually from the port city of Genoa. But some boats were manned by a mix of fisherman from many other nations. Working side by side with the Italians were Portuguese from Lisbon, Mexicans from Baja, Spaniards from Barcelona, Frenchmen from Marseille, Chinese fisherman who had been in the city for many years fishing for shrimp, and there were even some highly skilled long range seafarers from Basque. Cioppino became so popular among the families in the bay area that it began to be served as street food for laborers along the wharf and by 1906, after the devastating earthquake, it was served in several restaurants in town. It is a classic San Francisco feast and always eaten with the wildly popular local crusty sourdough bread.
Early in the Tenth Century, the Moors of North Africa conquered Sicily and for more than 200 years they transformed the cuisine of this ancient, once Greek island. To this day, many of the classic Sicilian meals trace their origin to the highly sophisticated Moors, who brought with them oranges and lemons, rice and saffron, cloves and nutmeg, raisins and cinnamon, and crucially they brought couscous to soak up all those exotic flavors. I have always loved the aromatic and intoxicating spices and aromas of the cooking of North Africa, and this meal is a fusion of that exotic cuisine with this haunting and somehow tragically beautiful rugged land called Sicily.