CHIAVARI, Italy – I was reading an article a while ago about street food in Sicily and it mentioned flat, fried chick pea cakes called panelle. Apparently they are a specialty of Palermo and one of the most popular street foods in Sicily. It was news to me. In all my trips south, I had never seen them, and it’s not because I don’t look at food everywhere I go.
The article said that panelle are made from chickpea flour and 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 quarter of an inch thick and about 3 inches square. They should be cooked until they are crispy and the middle should be firm and tender.
Wait a minute. Except for the size and the fact that it’s fried and not baked, what they are talking about is farinata, that manna from heaven you find in Liguria. How can that be? What happened to the farinata 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 delicious chick pea delight got started?
Apparently not. The article went on to say that although chick peas were widely cultivated in the tenth century, they have been a reliable 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. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated chickpeas, although probably not to the extent the Arabs did.
That is all well and good but what I want to know is 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 from waves splashing up 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 have to do is mix this stuff with a little water and fry it up and you’ll have yourself a tasty little treat?
|I'll Take Two|
While fried foods are a big no no these days, the article also said that panella is so delicious you should eat it anyway. And that advice came from the Sicilians, not the Ligurians who love their fried foods so much they often say “even a shoe is good fried.” Does it help to know that chickpeas are a good source of zinc, iron and other minerals and folate, even if no one seems to know exactly what folate is?
Then, another one of my food myth bubbles got busted when the article went on to talk about arancine, those delicious rice balls you find in almost every delicatessen in Italy. They were my primary source of sustenance back when I was going to school in Rome. My problem was money, or rather the difficulty of accessing it. It was back in those dark ages before ATM machines when you actually had to go to the bank and show them your passport and permissions and then wait a half an hour while they photocopied your documents.
I swear those old photocopy machines made noises like they were giving birth every time they pushed out a piece of paper. Since my bank, which was in the center of Rome, closed at 1:30, and I was in school out on the Via Nomentana every morning until 1, it was difficult to get back to the city before the banks closed which meant most of the time I was broke.
I was lucky that the arrancine tasted good because they were all I could afford to buy, apart from my once a day all-inclusive three-course meal at the Delfino Self-Service Cafeteria at the end of Via del Corso. For me arancine 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 with a crispy cover.
|Round, Roman Arrancine|
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. It seems rice balls are very similar to a Middle Eastern recipe popular during the Middle Ages. The Italian name arrancine comes from the Italian word for orange (arancia) which, if you are very imaginative, you can imagine 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? No idea.
I didn’t even know they grew rice in Sicily. I thought Italy’s rice belt was in Piedmont and Lombardy, but I am wrong once again. In fact the article states that there is no connection between the rice grown in up north, and the rice introduced in Sicily during the Arab period – the famous 10th century they keep talking about.
|Pointy Sicilian Arrancine|