Sea and serendipity created the Ligurian street food known as la farinata. Once upon a time over seven centuries ago it had a different name, the consequence of a storm in the Bay of Biscay following the battle of Meloria between the republics of Genoa and Pisa.
Fed on chickpea gruel, the rowers of one ship cursed their luck when they realised their food supply of chickpea flour and olive oil had been contaminated with the salty water of the sea during the storm. Some hungry rowers ate the chickpea pulp, others could not stomach it and left it in their bowls.
The following day, tempted by their increasing hunger, some rowers noticed that the pulp had hardened in the sun and was more palatable. Back on dry land the Genoese experimented with the accidental combination, baked it to a crisp and named it the ‘gold’ of Pisa. Later it became la farinata or la farinata de ceci although some Genoese call it faina de ceixi, from the local dialect.
It is a fanciful story, given the long culinary history of the venerable chickpea, and we would not dare tell the Italians, especially the people of Genoa, that one of their legends is not based on reality.
Domesticated chickpeas were found at Abu Hureyra in northwest Syria and at Çatalhöyük in central Turkey, archaeological sites that are respectively 11,000 and 9,000 years old, and are celebrated as one of the original civilised crops. Cultivated from the wild variety, the chickpea called desi is a native of Anatolia. A small angular chickpea, it is now grown across the region. Introduced into the Indus Valley, it was developed into the round kabuli chickpea.
The ancient version of desi had to be eaten fresh within days of harvesting because it dried quickly into hard stone-like lentils. Humus or humous – blended chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, oil and sesame seed paste (tahini) – was the obvious solution and now chickpeas and sesame seeds are seen as an essential culinary marriage. Dishes made with the combination are associated with the Arab countries, the Caucasus, the Levant and the eastern Mediterranean.
Chickpeas gradually formed an integral aspect of the traditional food of the Mediterranean basin. The Phoenicians, being Levantine traders, probably brought them to Tunisia and to Spain, where they are now indigenous and an essential ingredient in traditional Spanish food.
Chickpeas and rice is a popular dish throughout the Mediterranean. Rice with chicken and chickpeas is a national dish of Spain. Chickpeas feature in soups and stews. Chickpea balls are a typical Greek snack. Egypt’s national dish kushari is made with chickpeas. In Cyprus they make a snack with mashed chickpeas. Armenia has a unique dish called topik, a chickpea and potato shell stuffed with a tahini mixture of currants, onions, olive oil, pine nuts and spices.
An ancient fermented bread made with chickpeas and white wheat flour has made a comeback in Turkey. Emir Ayşe Özer and his colleagues at the Cukurova University Department of Food Engineering in Sarıçam / Adana described the process.
‘It was prepared in two stages. In the first stage chickpeas were coarse ground in a mortar and pestle and subsequently soaked with boiling water and some salt in a glass jar. The jars were incubated at 37-40 °C for 16-18 hours. In the second stage flour was added to obtain a dough. The dough was leavened and then cooked. The bread had a typical odor and taste.’
And of course chickpea flour, called gram flour in Asian countries, is incredibly versatile. In the Indian sub-continent it is used to make a popular savoury confection called gathia.
That brings us back to the chickpea fritter.
Famous as street food in the shape of lozenges, rectangles and squares, these golden fritters are more than a snack, they are history and tradition. Called panelle in Palermo, calentita on the rock of Gibraltar and l‘oro di Pisa in Genoa, it is hard to believe that a mixture of four ingredients – chickpea flour, olive oil, salt and water – could be cooked differently to produce the same result.
In Palermo salted chickpea flour is mixed with sufficient water to make a thick batter, poured onto a flat surface to cool, cut into desired shapes and then fried in olive oil.
In Gibraltar two methods are employed. Some cooks use less water and put much more olive oil in the baking tray. Other cooks use a ratio of four parts water to one part flour (1 litre to 250 g) but finish the cooking under a grill to enhance the colour. The calentita are cut into squares, sprinkled with cumin seeds and served with harissa.
In Genoa the method is more precise, with roughly one third chickpea flour to water (for example, 900 ml water to 250 g / 300 g chickpea flour), left to soak for 12 hours, then seasoned with black pepper, salt and sesame oil. The mixture is poured onto a tray covered with a heavy layer of olive oil and baked in a hot oven for 50 minutes, until the edges take on a golden red colour.