Live like a Niçois and snack on the tasty chickpea fritters known as panisses.
These chickpea fritters are a favourite with the a snack or accompanying a stew, says
Visit any pasta shop in Nice and you will see golden, saucer-shaped discs alongside sheets of beef-and-chard-filled ravioli and green or white tagliatelle noodles. Known as panisses, they look a little unprepossessing for a food that inspired the legendary Californian chef Alice Waters to name her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. Yet take them home, cut them into thick strips and fry them, and you will understand why these chickpea fritters cause such enthusiasm.
Like many local specialities, panisses made their way from Liguria to Marseille and Nice, both port cities with historical ties to Italy. The Genoese who settled here in the 19th century brought with them bags of chickpea flour, which allowed them to make the crisp pancake known as socca in Nice (or farinata in Liguria) as well as panisses, which were sold as a snack at the markets in Marseille.
The original name, panisso in Italian, referred to a chickpea polenta: unlike the batter for socca, which is poured directly into a copper pan to bake in a wood-fired oven, the panisse mixture cooks in a saucepan before being poured into saucers to set.
Because panisses are readily available in Nice and Marseille, few cooks bother to make them at home these days. Yet the process is surprisingly easy and rewarding, calling for no special equipment and just a few minutes of whisking as the bubbling mixture thickens. The ingredients are also easy to find, with gram (chickpea) flour now being sold in major supermarkets as well as Indian food shops.
Having made panisses many times, I have discovered the importance of adding olive oil to the water (my first try was a lumpy disaster without it), and to whisking in the sifted chickpea flour a large tablespoonful at a time. Ideally, one person adds the flour while the other whisks, but it is perfectly doable as a solo project. Salt is also a must to bring out the flavour, or you might add chopped black olives, like some pasta shops in Nice.
I prefer melt-in-themouth panisses to firm ones, so use a lower proportion of chickpea flour to water than some recipes I have seen. The fritters will take longer to brown and be a little more delicate to flip as they cook, but for me the result is worth the small effort.
As I don’t have large saucers, I use crème brûlée dishes to obtain the traditional round shape, but you can also pour the mixture into an oiled baking tray or loaf pan, which will give you more uniform chips. Rather than getting out my deep fryer, I am happy to shallow-fry the panisses in equal parts vegetable oil and olive oil.
For the Niçois, panisses can be anything from a snack, perhaps dipped in tomato sauce or a herbed fromage blanc dip, to an accompaniment to a stew such as daube, beef simmered in red wine with vegetables. My friend Karine, who was born in Nice, remembers her grandmother sprinkling them with sugar for a dessert – a perfect example of the locals’ ability to make the most of what they have.
ABOVE: The marina at Nice, capital of the Côte d-azur and home to panisses
Food critic and cookbook author Rosa Jackson lives in Nice, where she runs the cookery school Les Petits Farcis and writes about food for publications worldwide.