Deep fried risotto balls are appetizers or hors d’oeuvres normally made of leftover risotto molded around a filling and then breaded and deep-fried. They are normally served hot and are sometimes accompanied by a dipping sauce. A less popular cooking method for risotto balls is baking.
The origin of this dish is commonly attributed to Sicily. The Sicilian name for the deep fried risotto balls is arancini or arancine, the Italian word for orange, which is based on the shape and orange-like color the food item takes on when fried. Western Sicily generally produces round arancini, while the eastern regions tend to shape the tidbits into little cones.
Risotto is an Italian rice dish normally served as a side dish or entrée. It differs from plain steamed rice in that it is prepared by very slowly adding water or stock to raw, short grain rice while continually stirring it. This method allows the grains of rice to gradually liberate their starch. The end result is a creamy dish with a silky texture. Since the leftovers stiffen when refrigerated, the mixture is perfect for shaping into balls around fillings to create deep fried risotto balls.
The American version of risotto balls is traditionally filled with mozzarella or Fontina cheese or a combination of the two. Roman cuisine also favors a cheese filling. The deep fried risotto balls recipe considered the most authentic version and sold in Sicily is traditionally filled with mozzarella, tomato sauce, peas and meat. Less common fillings include mushrooms and eggplant. After the balls are formed, both versions are typically lightly floured, dipped in beaten egg, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried.
History indicates the first deep fried risotto balls were made in the tenth century when Sicily was under the rule of a Shia Muslim dynasty called the Kalbids. The light, crispy rice snacks were reportedly based on a Middle Eastern recipe. During these Middle Ages, saffron was a common ingredient in the rice balls.
Rice was not indigenous to Sicily, and it is not currently grown there. It is commonly believed that the Kalbids built irrigation systems during their rule to facilitate rice cultivation. It is also a common belief that Sicily’s climate was cooler and natural water was more plentiful during the Khalid rule, making rice cultivation fairly easy.
It is not entirely clear why these ancient snacks have gained such popularity worldwide. One theory is that the popularity of Italian novelist Andrea Camilleri’s detective novels is responsible. The main character in the books, Inspector Montalbano, frequently goes to great lengths to satisfy his recurrent craving for deep fried risotto balls.