Sicily’s Cucina Erotica All in a Seafood Stew

Anguilla a Picchi-Pacchiu all'Agrodolce (eel sweet and sour) (Sicily) (3) Sicilians are noted for culinary preparations with vulgar names. It’s not clear when this tradition began, but many of these dishes are sexual in nature and considered part of what would be called cucina erotica.  One particular style of preparation–and actually the name of the sauce in a variety of preparations–is called picchi-pácchiu, referring to various sauces made with tomatoes and onion with the addition, depending on the cook, of eggplant, anchovy, basil, and garlic. It is said the word has no meaning–just a silly made-up word. However, some lexicographers suggest it is a corruption and diminutive of pacchiuni, a vulgar Sicilian word for the vagina, intimating that the deliciousness of the sauce can be likened to the eroticism of cunnilingus. Another meaning to the word pácchiu is buttocks. Yet another theory links the word to the Italian word pacche which refers to the kinds of extravagant abundance one would find in the imaginary medieval utopia of the Land of Cockaigne and is said by some linguists to derive from the Old High German word pahho meaning belly or buttocks. As far as the sauce goes, it is a sauce that was born in Palermo but is found throughout Sicily now and can be used over spaghetti although a number of dishes are done in this style, such as babbaluci a pic-pac, snails pic-pac style. Pic-pac or picchi-pácchiu is always the name of the sauce.

It seems likely, using volume 1, page 105 of R. Dozy’s Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes published in 1881 [1991], that the word may actually come from the Tunisian Arabic word bakbak, meaning to chop small, which derives from the Spanish word picar as used by the sixteenth-century lexicographer Pedro de Alcala after the transformation of the phoneme “p” into “b” as is typical in Arabic. On the other hand, the word may derive from the Hindi pakku, meaning cooked, ripe, or solid, akin to the Greek passein, to cook. This word has entered the English language as pukka which can also mean genuine, authentic.

In place of eel, you can use monkfish, angelshark,or swordfish.  If using eel, have the fishmonger remove its skin and although it’s nice serving the eel boneless that’s where the work involved will enter.  To make it a bit easier go ahead and cook the eel on the bone then remove the flesh after it’s cooked.  In the U.S. eel is most commonly found around Christmas time, so that’s when you’re most likely to make this preparation.

Eel in Sweet and Sour "Picchi-Pácchiu" Sauce
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
This preparation is called Ancidda a Picchi-Pácchiu all'Auruduci in Sicilian, eel in sweet-and-sour "picchi-pácchiu" sauce, which you can read about in the post.
Recipe type: Seafood Stew
Cuisine: Sicilian
Serves: 6 to 8
  • Olive oil for frying
  • 1 large eggplant (about 1½ pounds), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 medium onions, cut into ¼-inch thick slices
  • 6 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 3 pounds ripe tomatoes, cut in half, seeds squeezed out, and grated against the largest holes of a grater down to the peel
  • 6 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed
  • 5 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • 5 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil leaves
  • ¾ teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled and dissolved in 4 tablespoons water or white wine
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 3 pounds boneless and skinless common eel, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Italian country bread slices, toasted or roasted
  1. Preheat the olive oil for frying to 375 degrees F.
  2. Cook the eggplant, in batches, until golden brown, about 6 minutes in all. Remove and drain on paper towels.
  3. In a large casserole, heat the extra-virgin olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring frequently, the onions and garlic until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, anchovies, parsley, basil, saffron, salt, and pepper, stir, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer 30 minutes. Add the eel and reserved eggplant, raise the heat to medium-low and push the eel down into the sauce. Cover, and cook until the eel is firm, about 25 minutes. Serve hot with the bread.


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