There’s nothing like the memories of food and emotion to mark your travels. The flavours we sample when out of our daily routine sometimes stay with us for years. And even when you think you know all about Italian food, there’s always something that will still surprise you. For this post, student Daniel Elia brings us his adventure of Finding Panelle in Italy.
During the Fall of 2012, I was given the opportunity to spend a year in Italy on exchange, attending university while teaching English at a private school. Growing up in an Italian household, food was always at the centre of any encounter or celebration. I had always associated good food with sitting down at my Nonna’s house with homemade soppressata, wine and parmeggiano. As a twenty year old in the middle of his university education in Canada, I had obviously devoured my fair share of street food after a night out drinking. I had never envisioned Sicilian street food tasting surprisingly as delicious as my family gatherings back in Canada.
A childhood friend also on exchange in Denmark and I traveled to Palermo, hoping to attend a soccer game and encounter a greasy Mafioso in his natural habitat. Upon arriving to our hostel, we were greeted by an unbelievably friendly Australian working at the front desk and were swept away with the rest of the occupants of the hostel to the area known as La Vucciria – the meat market. After seeing buildings still in ruins from WWII and interacting with friendly locals who had quite an odd interest in reggae music, we were told we had to indulge in a traditional late-night snack. We were led to a carello with a greasy man, hair greased back, and his chest hair hanging out of his shirt; the quintessential Sicilian stereotype. Without hesitation we paid for our unknown snack and were given the sandwich; Panelle.
The historical significance of this snack dates back to the French occupation of the island around 1250. The bourgouise French nobles were affluent and were able to afford fish. Lower-class Sicilians were subjected under harsh rule and taxation, therefore fish was regarded as a luxury. However, Sicilians are a very resilient and sly society. The wives would ask for the oil that the French had been frying the fish in. A chickpea flour pastry was then created and this dough was fried in the oil in order to attain a residual taste of fish.
When I returned to Canada, I looked up the recipe online and came to the conclusion that the only ingredient I was missing was the chick-pea flour. One night, driven to satisfy this craving, I set out to make my own chick-pea flour. I created a chick-pea mush out of canned chick-peas and mixed it with normal all-purpose flour. Unfortunately, the process derailed somewhere along the line as the finished product was very mushy on the inside. However, there was a slight glimmer of the delicacy somewhere in there.
I told my mother about the failed culinary experiment and she went out on the hunt for chick-pea four. After months of searching periodically, she finally got her hands on Indian chick-pea flour. I find it amazing how a simple Sicilian street food dish can incite such profound memories to continue and flourish years later. The flour awaits the next family gathering and will be enjoyed along side Calabrese cuddurieddi.
Written by Daniel Elia
Edited by Pistol Romagnoli