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In Sicily, an Arab Touch

On Christmas, many Sicilians in the province of Catania will make a magnificent baked rice timbale, a feast dish shared with many friends and family, called tummàla. Although tummàla is a Christmas specialty, Sicilian cooks prepare it for all sorts of celebrations warranting a grand culinary gesture.

The Arabs introduced rice to Sicily in the 9th or 10th century, and tummàla is considered a representative example of cucina arabo-sicula, the folkloric expression of a vestigial Arab culinary sensibility found in contemporary Sicily, some 800 years after the last of the Arab-Sicilian population disappeared.

The Italian translation of the Sicilian tummàla is timballo, leading one to believe that this dish is derived from the French timbale. In fact, the name comes from Muhammad Ibn al-Thumna, the 11th-century emir of Catania, or from tummàla, the purported Arabic name for a certain kind of earthenware plate. Traditionally, this dish is made with a chicken with its unborn eggs.  The cheeses — pecorino pepato, caciocavallo and fresh mozzarella — can be found in Italian markets, gourmet cheese shops or better supermarkets, and all of them can be ordered online through (You can receive a discount on cheeses by clicking on the banner on my website, The first cheese, pecorino pepato, is simply a young pecorino cheese made with peppercorns thrown into the curd. The mozzarella is used in place of fresh tuma, a fresh pecorino cheese only found at the source of production, so it’s not available in this country, although a young tuma between 3 months and 6 months old can be found in Italian markets. Caciocavallo, a spun-curd cow’s milk cheese, can be replaced with provolone.

This modern recipe is probably an invention of a 19th-century monzù, one of the French-trained chefs of noble families. But don’t let the list of ingredients intimidate you. Great length, in this case, does not mean great difficulty.


Serves 8 to 10


For the chicken and broth:

1 3-pound chicken
2 medium onions, cut into eighths
2 celery stalks, cut into chunks
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered
5 fresh parsley sprigs
10 black peppercorns

For the veal croquettes and sausage:

½ cup fresh bread crumbs
3 tablespoons milk
¾  pound ground veal
¾  pound pecorino pepato cheese, grated, for divided use
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, for divided use
Salt to taste
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large egg
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons pork lard
½ pound mild Italian sausage, sliced ½-inch thick
¼ pound pork rind, cut into thin strips
2 tablespoons tomato paste, diluted in 1 cup water

For the tummàla:

2½ cups short-grain rice, such as Arborio rice, soaked in tepid water to cover for 30 minutes or rinsed well in a strainer, drained
butter as needed
1 cup dry bread crumbs
2 large eggs, hard-boiled and sliced
½ pound fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
¼ pound caciocavallo cheese, thinly sliced
4 large eggs
¼ pound pecorino romano cheese, grated


  1. In a large stock pot that will fit the chicken comfortably, place the chicken with its gizzards, onions, celery stalks, tomatoes, parsley sprigs and peppercorns.  Cover with cold water and bring to a near boil over high heat.
  2. As soon as the water looks like it is going to boil, reduce immediately to a simmer and cook the chicken until the meat falls off the bone when pushed with a fork, about 2 hours. Don’t let the water boil or it will toughen the chicken.
  3. Meanwhile, prepare the veal croquettes. In a bowl, soak the fresh bread crumbs in the milk. If the mixture looks soggy, squeeze the milk out. Add the veal, half of the pecorino pepato, the garlic, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, ½ teaspoon salt and the pepper. Lightly beat 1 egg and add to the mixture. Mix well with a fork or your hands.
  4. Form croquettes the size and shape of your thumb. Cover and put aside in the refrigerator.
  5. Drain the chicken, saving all the broth in a smaller pot. Remove and discard all the skin and bones from the chicken and cut the meat into small pieces.
  6. In a large frying pan, cook the chopped onion in 1 tablespoon lard over medium heat until golden, stirring, about 8 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.
  7. Add the remaining lard to the pan and cook the veal rissoles until they are browned. Add the sausage and pork rind and cook for 10 minutes. Add the sautéed onion, the remaining 4 tablespoons parsley and the diluted tomato paste. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Set aside.
  8. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  9. Bring the chicken broth to a boil and reduce by one-third.
  10. Pour 2½ cups broth into a heavy saucepan, bring to a boil, add the rice and about 1½ teaspoons salt. Cook, covered and without stirring, until al dente, about 15 minutes.
  11. Pour about ¾ cup of broth into the veal-sausage mixture.
  12. Drain the rice, if necessary, and mix it with the remaining pecorino pepato.
  13. Butter a 4-inch deep round baking dish or baking casserole and spread 1 cup of dry bread crumbs on the bottom, shaking vigorously to spread them thin so that they coat the bottom of the baking dish.
  14. Spread the rice on top of the bread crumbs, about ¾-inch deep. Spread ¾ of the chicken and ½ of the veal croquettes and sausage mixture on top of the rice. Make a layer of hard-boiled egg. Layer the mozzarella cheese on top of the eggs. Cover with the remaining veal and sauce. Spread on a layer of caciocavallo cheese. Mix the remaining chicken with the remaining rice and spread it on top.
  15. Beat the remaining 4 eggs lightly and combine with the pecorino romano. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce evenly over the top.
  16. Bake until the top has a nice golden crust, about 1 hour. Check from time to time to be sure it doesn’t dry out. The tummàla can be served directly from the baking dish with the pan sauces or with tomato sauce.

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.

Photo: Santa Maria del Monte, a landmark in Caltagirone, Catania province, Sicily. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).