SARONNO, Italy – I was reading an article the other day about street food in Sicily and it mentioned a flat, fried cake called panella, that is made from chickpea flour. I had never heard of it and was surprised to learn that it has been around since the Middle Ages. Apparently it is one of the more popular street foods in Sicily and is sold where ever there is a street market, which is just about everywhere.
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The article went on to say that panella is made with chickpea flour, with just enough water to form a thick paste, some chopped parsley, perhaps a bit of fennel seed, salt and pepper, then deep fried. The cakes should be no more than about a half-centimeter thick, and about eight centimeters (3.5 inches) square, thought smaller sizes are popular too. The cakes should be cooked completely but not to the point of being completely crispy, with the inside being firm but also tender.
Wait a minute. Except for the size, isn't what they are talking about here farinata, that manna from heaven found only in Liguria? What happened to the story about the sailing ship getting caught in a terrible storm and the bags of chickpea flour getting wet and the frugal Genovese scooping up the mess and frying it for the crew’s dinner? Isn’t that how this fried chick pea dish got started? What’s this business about the Arabs and chick peas in Sicily?
The article went on to say that although chick peas were widely cultivated in the tenth century, they have been a food source for centuries. It also said that cicer arietinum, which I’m assuming is the Latin name for chick peas, was originally cultivated by Neolithic man in the Middle East, India and western Asia, domesticated from another variety of cicer reticulatum still grown in Turkey, and present in the central Mediterranean area during the Bronze Age. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated chickpeas, though probably not to the extent of the Arabs.
That is all well and good but it doesn’t answer my question. How did chickpeas get from the Arabs in Sicily up to the Genovese sailors in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? Were there Arab sailors on that Genovese ship? Somehow I don’t think so. If that was the case the Genovese wouldn’t have had to wait until the sacks of chick pea flour got soaking wet by water splashing on board during a storm to figure out what to do with it, right? Wouldn’t the Arabs have said to them, look pal, all you’ve got to do is mix this stuff with a little water and fry it up and you’ll have yourself a tasty little treat? I'm sure the Genovese would have jumped on it since they love anything fried. In fact they are fond of saying, "even a shoe fried is good."
While fried foods seem to be a big no no these days, the article also said that panella is so delicious you should eat it anyway, and besides it isn’t all that bad for you since it doesn’t require a lot of frying – although the amount of time it fries really doesn’t make much difference, it’s the frying part that’s worrisome. And as an added incentive it said that chickpeas are a good source of zinc, iron and other minerals and folate, whatever folate is.
Then, the article busted another one of my food myth bubbles and started talking about arancine, those delicious rice balls you find in almost every bar and delicatessen in Rome. The first time I lived in Italy, way before I moved here permanently, I lived on arancine. I was lucky that they tasted so good because they were all I could afford to buy, apart from my one a day all-inclusive three-course meal at the Delfino Self-Service Cafeteria at the end of Via del Corso. For me aracine were a Roman treat, and for years I marveled at how clever the Romans were to have invented such a simple, but delicious little snack of meat, peas and cheese all stuffed into a rice ball and fried.
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It turns out – at least according to the article – that arancine were also brought here in the tenth century during the Kalbid rule of Sicily. Stuffed with meat and coated with a light, crispy batter, rice balls are similar to foods based on recipes known in the Middle East during the Middle Ages. Their Italian name comes from the word for orange (arancia), which, if you are a very creative Italian, you can imagine that they sort of resemble oranges in color and texture even though those dots never really ever connected for me. At any rate, it turns out there are two types of arancine. Those made in western Sicily are round, like the ones in Rome, while those made in eastern Sicily (particularly around Catania) are often conical. Why? Don’t ask.
I didn’t even know they grew rice in Sicily. I thought Lombardy was the rice belt, but I am wrong once again. In fact the article states that there is no connection between the rice grown in Piedmont and Lombardy and that in Sicily. Rice was introduced to the island during the Arab period – the famous 10th century they keep talking about. Of course, rice cultivation requires water so the Arabs had to build an innovative and efficient irrigation systems in Sicily, which looking at Sicily today which is very hot and dry, it’s hard to imagine. It’s true that the island was greener then and the climate was cooler, and that there were more streams that flowed all year round. It was a very different Sicily with navigable rivers and natural lakes. In such an environment the Arabs revolutionized agriculture and introduced new crops such as cotton and sugar cane.
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And then, they struck the final blow with the last line which stated: rice balls are the golden jewel in the crown of Sicilian cuisine. I think the only solution to my dilemma is to get back down to Sicily and stay there for a few weeks and see what else is going on down there that I don’t know about. I need to get to the bottom of this.
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