Fainá is a very simple dough made from chickpea flour, that is gluten-free and unleavened, which migrated from Italy to Uruguay and Argentina, where it has become the essential accompaniment to pizza.
What is fainá?
Fainá is a large pancake made with chickpea flour, water, olive oil, salt and pepper. There is also a variant based on wheat flour, chickpea flour, salt, water, olive oil and pepper which is called fainá de Savona.
Fainá, which was brought by Genoese immigrants, is sold in various traditional pizzerias in Argentina and Uruguay. It is very common to eat it with a slice of pizza which is then called “pizza on horseback” (pizza a caballo).
What is the origin of fainá?
Born in northern Italy, in the Liguria region with Genoa as the capital, over a century ago, fainá landed in the port of Buenos Aires to become a local classic.
In the 13th century, ships were driven not only by the wind but also by the force of rowers, often fed with soups of legumes like chickpeas.
The naval battle of Meloria took place on Sunday August 6, 1284, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, near the islet of Meloria, off Livorno, Italy, on the west coast of Tuscany. It opposed the Maritime Republics of Genoa, then in full rise in the western Mediterranean Sea, and of Pisa, which had just been at its apogee and was going to start a period of decline after this battle.
After this battle of Meloria, where the Genoese defeated the Pisans, the galleys were very crowded with captive rowers. One of these galleys, sailing in the agitated Bay of Biscay, was in the middle of a strong storm for several days. The sea water on board seriously damaged the food and the chickpeas in the reserve were soaked and the humidity reduced everything to purée.
When the good weather returned, the great disaster caused on the supplies was discovered and, because food had become very scarce, Pisan prisoners received this dish of shapeless chickpea purée. Some Pisans refused this purée, leaving their bowl in the sun to take possession of it the next day, when the feeling of hunger had become unsustainable.
An entire day of exposure to the sun, however, had turned the dish into a kind of pancake, completely different from the unappetizing chickpea porridge from the previous day. The fortuitous discovery interested the Genoese who perfected the recipe by baking it in a wood-burning oven, and naming it as a mockery against their opponents “Pisa gold” (Pisa d’oro).
How to make fainá
The basic recipe requires mixing one fourth of chickpea flour and three fourths of water by weight, salt and pepper. Olive oil is added to this almost liquid mixture and it is baked until it solidifies.
The most traditional recipe is to sift the chickpea flour and combine all the ingredients, except the oil, vigorously with a whisk.
The most important step is to leave the dough to rest for at least 4 hours, or more, in the refrigerator, to prevent it from fermenting, stirring from time to time to avoid the packing of the flour, and dissolve any residual lumps.
Just before baking, a quarter of the oil must be incorporated into the dough and just before pouring the dough into the mold, the remaining oil must be poured into the bottom of the mold and heated in the oven but without reaching its smoke point.
The variants of fainá
Everywhere in Italy, where this chickpea flatbread was born, it is called farinata and it has several regional variants:
- On the Tuscan coast, in the south of Liguria, and especially in the provinces of Pisa, Livorno, Lucca, Massa Carrara, Cecina, it is called la torta di ceci. Precisely in Liguria, it is a dish also widespread not only under the name of farinata or torta di ceci, but also under the name of fainâ de çeixi in Genoese or fainà in the dialect of La Spezia.
- In Genoa, variants of the farinata sometimes include onions or artichokes, but the most famous variant is fainâ co i gianchetti, a farinata with small immature white fish between 1 inch (25 mm) and 2 inches (50 mm long).
- In Sassari, in the heart of Sardinia, due to its historical links with Genoa, it is called the genoese lazy.
- In the province of Savona, near Genoa, a version of the farinata called farinata bianca (white farinata) is popular.
- In Piedmont, from Alexandria to Asti and Turin, it is called bela càuda.
- Fainò is also very well known in Carloforte, a Sardinian village with Genoese influences.
- Socca is also a specialty from the southeast of France, especially in and around the city of Nice and Monaco, and is the same as farinata.
- Panisse is a specialty of Marseille, and is a similar dish, but thicker. It is usually cut into rectangles and fried.
In North Africa and the rest of the world:
- In Algeria, karantita is a similar dish which is very popular. It is served hot and garnished with cumin and harissa
- In northern Morocco and southern Spain, calienté, which follows the same recipe as fainá, is very popular.
- In Gibraltar, a British overseas territory located on the south coast of Spain, where a large part of the population is of Genoese origin, it is known as calentita when baked or panissa when ‘it’s fried. These versions are generally eaten plain, without garnish.
In India, dal (the word for legumes), chilla or besan (the word for chickpea flour), or puda, depending on the region, is a similar dish made from chickpea flour (or another legume) and water, cooked on an oiled pan. Vegetables such as onions, green peppers, cabbage and herbs and spices such as cilantro are also added in some versions of the preparation.
Fainá in Uruguay
Fainá is as popular in Uruguay as it is in Argentina.
It was introduced to Uruguay by two Italian brothers, the Guido brothers. In 1915, these two Italians created the first mill for the production of chickpea flour in Uruguay, while the industry was in its infancy and the product, whose origin comes from the Piedmontese farinata, was not still not known in the country.
Fainà is so ingrained in Uruguayan culture that every August 27, the country celebrates the Day of the fainá (día del auténtico fainá). This date corresponds to the anniversary of the founding of the Guido brothers’ mill in 1915.
How to make homemade chickpea flour
Chickpea flour, used in all these famous recipes, is produced by grinding chickpeas. Gluten-free, it can, in certain diets, replace wheat, oat or rye flour.
It is used mainly in India, where it is known as besan or gram, where it is often used in the batter of fritters such as pakora, and also in Algeria and Tunisia where it is used to make ghraiba for example.
In Europe, it is mainly used around the Mediterranean.
Bhajas are a delicious popular appetizer in Mauritius. These are vegetable fritters made from chickpea flour.
In Burma, it is used to make chickpea tofu.
Making chickpea flour at home is very simple and also inexpensive. All you have to do is buy dried chickpeas which will then be turned into powder with the blades of a powerful food processor. You can also use an old manual grinder.
First rinse the chickpeas well and then dry them on a cloth for at least 15 hours. Then they must be roasted in the oven for about 20 minutes at 300 F (150°C).
Then, once they are cool, they must be ground in a food processor in small quantities until a powder is obtained.
To make sure the consistency is the right one, sieve flour. Then take any chickpea pieces left in the sieve and mix them in the food processor again. The flour is then ready.
- 2½ cups chickpea flour
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 cups cold water
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Pepper (to taste)
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the chickpea flour, oil and gradually pour in the water. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk for 3 minutes.
- Cover and let the dough rest for 6 hours in the refrigerator, stirring the dough well with the whisk every hour.
- Preheat the oven to 350 F (180°C).
- Take the dough out of the refrigerator and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Beat for 1 minute.
- Pour the remaining oil into the mold and heat it in the oven without reaching the smoke point.
- Pour the dough into the mold. Using a spoon, spread the oil which has risen from the edges to the center of the mold.
- Bake for 25 minutes.
- Let cool and cut into portions.