CHIAVARI, Italy – I recently posted a photo on Facebook of Domenico Cuscino, a young guy from Palermo who has started selling traditional Sicilian chickpea fritters called panelle to hungry Milanese, from his bright yellow Piaggio Ape. Many liked the idea but didn’t know what panelle were.
|Street Market in Palermo|
I really wasn’t surprised for in all my trips south, I had never seen or heard of them either until last year when I wrote this blog post, and it’s not because I don’t look at food everywhere I go.
I had found an article that said that panelle are a specialty of Palermo and one of the most popular street foods in Sicily. They are made from chickpea flour, chopped parsley, a bit of fennel seed, salt and pepper, enough water to form a thick paste and then deep fried.
What? Wait a minute, I said to myself. 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 chickpea delight got started?
Apparently not. The article went on to say that although chickpeas 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 chickpeas, 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 chickpea flour 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 chickpea 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, look pal, if you mix this stuff with a little water and fry it up, you’ll have yourself a tasty little treat?
While fried foods are a big no no these days, the article also went on to say that panelle are so delicious you should eat them 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 arancini, 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, but rather the difficulty of accessing it. Of course that was back in the dark ages before ATM machines when you actually had to go to the bank and show your passport and permissions to be in Italy, and then wait half an hour while they photocopied your documents, for only then would they would turn over any money.
I swear those old photocopy machines sounded like they were giving birth to triplets 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.
Luckily arrancini tasted good because they were all I could afford, 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 arancini were a Roman treat, and for years I marveled at how clever the Romans were to have invented such a simple, but delicious snack of meat, peas and cheese all stuffed into a tasty little rice ball with a crispy cover.
It turns out – at least according to the article – that arancini were also brought here in the tenth century when the Kalbid ruled Sicily. It seems rice balls are very similar to a Middle Eastern recipe that was popular during the Middle Ages. The name arrancini comes from the Italian word for orange (arancia) which, if you are very imaginative you can sort of see their resemblance to oranges, although truthfully those dots never really ever connected for me.
At any rate, it turns out there are two types of arancini. 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 was wrong once again. In fact the article states that there is no connection between the rice grown up north and the rice introduced in Sicily during the Arab period – the famous 10th century they keep talking about.
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 this problem is to go back to Sicily and see what else is going on in that food world that I don’t know about. Probably a lot.