The richness of poor man’s food

Last night my hosts in Roma wanted to make sure I finished my stay in the “eternal city” with two special Italian street foods – one, suppli, to farewell Roma and the other, farinata, to introduce me to where I find myself tonight, the stunning Ligurian coast.

Both dishes could be historically described as “poor man’s food” – as is so often the case with special dishes that become part of a region’s historical food story.

Suppli and farinata represent all that is good about the world’s best street food – simple, cheap, fantastic to eat and oozing in culture, with a good story to tell [truth not guaranteed]!

Anyone reading this post, who has travelled somewhere around the globe, will know the delight and occasionally the “danger” of experiencing food from the street. Yes, you can experience fine dining at its best, but the heart and soul of local culture is often found in local food heroes, often with a legendary story of how they came to be.

Step out on to the streets of Peru and you can’t miss kebab-like anticuchos. In Vietnam, dating back to the 1950s, the banh mi has been a favourite on the streets. Or maybe you would prefer an egg waffle in Hong Kong, tamales in Mexico City, Pad Thai in Thailand or some sweet baklava in Turkey? Fish and chips in Britain makes the street food guides on a number of online sites and there could be some interesting debate about what makes up authentic Australian street food. [Statistically, maybe the humble snag at Bunnings is the best-selling street food weekend by weekend across the country.] \

Talking sausages, I still remember my first afternoon in New York City. I had just arrived in Manhattan – an island with so many joyous food experiences to savour – but I had to make my first “meal” stop, a visit to the blue and yellow Sabrett’s hot dog stand, where I met Edwardo who was one day hoping to come to Australia. No, not gourmet food – but so New York City, complete with mustard and chilli. [My wife would say a hot dog isn’t food at all – but she just doesn’t understand the cultural significance of the mighty dog – be that in Manhattan or the MCG.]

Now let me get back to that Roman rice ball that shouts loudly all that is good about Italian street food. I think I want to open a suppli stand in Melbourne, I will be on a winner I reckon!

I don’t know if you have tried suppli, but they were quickly in short supply last night as I enjoyed dinner with Team D’Amico on their fifth-floor Roman terrace.

Suppli is a Roman classic – a deep-fried rice ball – not to be confused with Sicilian arancini – and is cooked with tomato ragù, coated with bread crumbs and contains a mozzarella heart.

According to legend the supplì had humble beginnings, starting off in the early 19th century as a poor-man’s dish, with chicken giblets used before being replaced by ragù. I’m certainly happy there was no sign of giblet last night.

Supplì were originally served on the street before making their way into Roman restaurants and. pizzerias from the late 1800s. Interestingly “suppli” originally comes from the French word for surprise, referring to the warm and stringy mozzarella surprise which is found at the centre of these delicious rice balls

Last night as I tucked into my second suppli, one of my hosts Elettra showed me why the dish is often referred to in Roma as “suppli al telephone”. As you take the suppli and break it in two pieces, mozzarella is drawn out in a string, somewhat resembling the cord connecting a telephone handset to the hook. The imagery works for me – but I’m older enough to remember telephones like that!

My hosts tell me that you should always be able to buy a suppli for 1 Euro or less – it’s the custom! I guess like an extra, unpaid scallop in Australia – an unwritten fish and chip shop law!

From the simple joy of suppli, fast forward 24 hours and I’ve not long come from dinner at a humble seaside café in Monterosso al Mare and yes there it was front and centre on the menu – “farinata”.

Hearing me speak English the young waiter asked had I eaten it before. “Yes, last night, home-cooked in Rome,” my reply. She looked puzzled and said, “Ours is good”. And yes it was – so thanks Ricardo & Filippo for the local tip!

Farinata isn’t much to look at – but two nights in a row and I’m already a fan of this chickpea flour flat bread. I was brainstorming tonight some fusion ideas for when I get home.

The Ligurian bread is an ancient dish so popular that the Genoese give it a legend to remember one of the greatest achievements in the city’s history, the defeat of the Pisans in the Meloria battle.

Food blogger and proud Ligurian Enrica from shares the story:

The year was 1284. It is said that on the return from the battle the Genoese fleet encountered a storm. The bags of chickpea flour on board the ships over-turned and the flour mixed with the sea water that swept the decks. After the storm the sailors, exhausted and hungry, recovered the batter and put it to dry in the sun. The next day they tasted it and discovered its goodness. When they got home, they refined the recipe baking it in wood ovens and, in defiance of the won enemy, they called it “the gold of Pisa”.

A legend, certainly, because farinata dates back to Roman times and similar dishes – based on water and chickpea flour – are also typical of other Mediterranean regions: in Tuscany, in Pisa – in fact – you can eat cecina, in Livorno a cake of chickpeas, in Sardinia the fainé, in Sicily there are the famous panelle and in Provence a tart very similar to farinata and called socca. In short, the chickpea flour over the centuries has fed and conquered so many seafaring peoples!”

My “at-the-table” research as I waited for my Ligurian pesto inspired lasagne highlighted that farinata doesn’t look much, but there’s an art to making it well. The proportions between the ingredients are fixed and invariable – water, flour, salt and oil – and apparently the thickness of the chickpea tart at bake time is fundamental to its success.

The chef at my little Ligurian seaside establishment tonight obviously knew what he or she was doing – crunchy on the outside – soft in the middle – herb flavoured and quick and cheap!

Later in the week I will be in France for a short stay so there will be some more local street foods to discover and I’ve already read up on some chorizo and sardine street favourites in Lisbon. “Mmm” chorizo and sardines –  two of life’s simple food sensations!

Street food reminds us that so much of what is good in life is discovered as we reclaim and celebrate “the ordinary”. In the hands of some clever and thrifty cooks suppli and farinata came to be and are now celebrated local heroes.

I hope to meet and taste some more “heroes” on this trip and let’s always be thankful for the provision of food and the privilege of new meal experiences, particularly in a world where so many have so little!

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