My fellow Americans might not believe me, but there is something better than French fries. Panelle! Panelle are chickpea flour fritters from Palermo, Sicily. Fried and dusted with salt and pepper they are a delicious treat.
Today’s post starts with a short story about eating Panelle for the first time in Palermo, Sicily. Next is a brief explainer of what they are and where they originated. After that, you’ll find a quick and easy recipe. Finally, recipe videos with three ways to make Panelle at home.
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Imagine being in Sicily in late January with a month-long road trip ahead. That’s where I was this time last year.
It was the first day of our trip. Although it was a sunny day, a chilly Sicilian wind drove my husband Paolo and I in search of warmth.
Snagging the last two seats at the bar of Bisso Bistrot, we took quick stock of the menu. The first thing on it? You guessed it Panelle under Antipasti.
The waiter arrived before I could even ask Paolo “what is Panelle?”
Without skipping a beat, Paolo ordered a bottle of Frappato (a Sicilian red wine I also now love) and naturally Panelle.
What arrived blew my mind so much that I left the Bisso Bistrot that day with a mission. To learn how to make Panelle at home so good, they could transport us back to Sicily.
What follows are the answers to all the questions I had while learning to make them at home.
What is Panelle?
In English, Panelle are chickpea flour fritters. The batter is simple. Just Chickpea flour, water, salt, pepper, and parsley.
Consequently, Panelle are an inexpensive, easy treat to make at home, and a popular street food in Palermo, Sicily where they are from.
Side note: The question I was about to ask Paolo, “what is Panelle?” makes me giggle now because it’s like asking “what is French fries.”
In Italian Panelle is the plural form of the word Panella. In other words Panelle are a serving of Chickpea fritters. Whereas a Panella is a single fritter.
Where Did Panelle Originate?
Although Panelle come from Palermo, Sicily the main ingredient of chickpea flour means they are most likely of Arabic origin.
“It is told that Arabs, who dominated the island between the 9th and the 11th century, were the first to grind chickpeas, obtaining a flour to be mixed with water, in order to obtain a kind of polenta. There are no certainties about the first person who decided to turn it into squares to dip in hot oil, making the primordial dough tastier. This, however, is the origin of the panelle, a simple dish which is loved by Sicilians and not only them, just as every fried food.”Sicilian Post
In contrast, Veronica Schiera a Chef in Palermo was quoted in La Cucina Italiana Magazine as saying of Panelle. “The Arabs were well aware of the legume grinding technique: they obtained a flour to which they added water and the mixture was then cooked in vertical ovens. It was then the Angevins, in a later period, who experimented with frying.”
Chickpeas in Italian Cuisine
Chickpeas (ceci in Italian) have been a part of Mediterranean cuisine since neolithic times.
If you spend much time traveling around Italy, you find countless traditional Italian dishes featuring Chickpeas. There are two good reasons for that.
First, Italians grown Chickpeas all over Italy. Thus making an appearance in traditional recipes from the north to the south.
Secondly, because Chickpeas are both nutritious and inexpensive. They truly are the perfect cucina povera (cuisine of the poor) ingredient.
For example, you can find Farinata in pizzerias of northern Italy. Similar to Panelle, Farinatta is a Chickpea flour and water batter.
So what’s the difference between Farinata and Panelle?
Difference Between Panelle and Farinata
Like a flatbread, Italians bake Farinata in round pans in the oven. On the other hand, Southern Italians make the same mixture of Chickpea and water and cook it on the stovetop. Then shape it and let it cool. Finally, they cut it into pieces and fry it!
In short, Italians bake Farinata but fry Panelle.
I’ve included a recipe video for Farinata in the video playlist below to illustrate the difference.
What They Taste Like
While humble at first site, Panelle are unexpectedly complex. They taste nutty, salty, and best of all they are crispy! When fried they get what Italians call “la camicia” the shirt. A crisp outer layer. A quality not common to Italian cuisine, but this American loves!
Additionally, the parsley and pepper balance out the earthy flavor of chickpea flour, lending a fresh bite.
As with all fried snacks don’t snooze when they hit the table. The crispy exterior surrounds a tender center best eaten warm.
Sound like something you want to make at home?
How to Make Panelle
Panelle require little skill or ingredients to make at home. Because the recipe is as simple as equal parts Chickpea flour and water, it’s also easy to scale. Seasonings are just salt, pepper, and finely chopped parsley.
As always the secret to tasty simplicity is in the technique. To make Panelle, mix equal parts Chickpea flour and water with a bit of salt together slowly. Ensure there are no lumps by either adding the flour through a strainer or mixing small amounts in at once.
Heat the mixture on the stove for 20 – 30 minutes, but don’t step away. You’ll need to stir it constantly. Once the mixture resembles a thick polenta, season with parsley, and pepper. Then it’s time to rest, cool, and set.
Traditionally, Sicilians use wooden boards to rest the mixture before cutting and frying it.
The video playlist below show three techniques you can use at home. Spreading the batter on a marble or steel surface, using plates, and finally a plastic container.
- 3 Cups Chickpea Flour
- 3 Cups Water
- 1.5 tsp Salt
- 1.5 tsp Chopped Parsley
- Vegetable, Seed or Olive Oil You'll need enough oil for the Panelle to float freely while frying. The exact amount will depend on your pot or pan.
- Place water in a pot large enough to hold twice the volume.
- Add the Chickpea flour 1/4 cup at a time and whisk to avoid clumping.
- Add the salt.
- Cook over low heat for approximately 20 minutes.
- Stirring constantly until the mixture forms a thick polenta like consistency.
- Add in the fresh parsley and stir throughout.
- Spread the mixture on a baking sheet or marble surface approximately 1/5 inch thick to cool.
- With a knife or pastry cutter, trim the batter into rectangles. The exact size doesn't matter as much as the consistency. Aim for 1"x2" or 2"x4" pieces.
- In a second pot or pan, add enough oil for the Panelle to float freely while frying.
- Fry the Panelle, flipping every 30 seconds until just brown on both sides.
- Using a wire strainer or a spider spatula transfer the Panelle to a plate with paper towels to absorb excess oil.
- Season with black pepper and salt (to taste) and enjoy!
Traditionally, served on a bun like a sandwich, Panelle are a popular street food in Palermo.
However, my favorite way to eat them is all by themselves just like French fries… only better!
Across Palermo you’ll find them served up as a stand alone snack for an aperitivo or as antipasti before a sit down meal.
Made with just five inexpensive ingredients Panelle are an addictive treat. It’s easy to see why they are a popular street food in Palermo, Sicily.
Recipe Video Playlist
Tip on Italian Language Videos. YouTube has closed captions in multiple languages. Hit play, then click the CC bottom to turn on the closed captions. Next, click the settings button (gear-looking wheel) and turn the captions to English so you don’t miss the word Cicchetti being pronounced properly. Fair warning, you’re about to be very hungry!
To Sum it All Up
Panelle are crisp and salty like French fries. However chickpea flour adds a tasty twist.
Furthermore, chickpeas are better for you than potatoes.
Although both chickpeas and potatoes are both high calorie starches, chickpeas have more of the good stuff we all want in our diets. Specifically thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, Vitamin B6, folate, calcium, iron, potassium, protein, and dietary fiber.
For these two reasons, I’ll take Panelle over French fries any day. How about you? Let me know in the comments below!