A blog about food in Thailand
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Panelle alla Mae Hong Son

Posted date:  January 25, 2011


As mentioned previously, people in northern Thailand love their deep-fried food. And in a weird twist of fate, one kind of deep-fried snack that’s particularly popular in Mae Hong Son is also associated with the streets of Sicily.

Known there as panelle, in Mae Hong Son they’re sometimes called tao huu thawt, literally ‘fried tofu.’ This is a misleading name, as the crispy deep-fried snacks are actually made from chickpea (garbanzo bean) flour.

An obscure ingredient that I’ve only ever encountered here in Mae Hong Son or in Indian groceries (where it’s known as besan), chickpea flour is also popular in Myanmar, particularly among the Shan, the same Tai ethno-linguistic group that inhabit Mae Hong Son, who use it to make something the Burmese call Shan tophu kyaw, ‘deep-fried Shan tofu,’ a dish that outsiders sometimes call Burmese tofu.

The vendors in Mae Hong Son’s morning market sell a variety of dishes using chickpea flour. In one, known as thua oon, ‘warm beans,’ the flour is boiled with water, and the thick, yellow, gelatinous liquid is served over noodles. In another version, the flour and water mixture are allowed to set until firm enough to cut into slices which are eaten in the form a spicy salad.

But the tastiest and seemingly most popular version is thua phu thawt, ie the panelle of Mae Hong Son, where the firm mixture is deep-fried. They’re light and rarely oily, and when hot, actually taste a lot like McDonald’s French fries. In Sicily they’re fried in wide, flat sheets and are apparently served in sandwiches. In Mae Hong Son’s morning market, they’re served as tiny triangles and come with a spicy/salty tamarind-based dip.

Recently a vendor started selling the dish near the house I rent up here. Her version, like those sold in Myanmar, are small and crispy, and are served with a dip that combines chickpea flour paste, lime juice and chili oil (pictured at the top of this post).

This snack and view from the vendor’s stall:


are collaborating to take me from my work and make me fat.

Is there a link between the panelle of Sicily and the thua phu thawt of Mae Hong Son? My only guess is the Muslim influence that came to Sicily via the Moors and to Myanmar via India, brought with it chickpea flour. The fried dish that exists today in these disparate destinations could very well be a culinary coincidence.

If you want to make thua phu thawt, pick up a bag of besan at an Indian grocery and follow this Italian recipe. If you’re in Mae Hong Son, simply go here:

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7 Comments for Panelle alla Mae Hong Son

in Italy we have anoder chickpea flour speciality from Genoa very similar to one of the preparations you are talking about: la panissa. Cook chickpea flour in boiling salted water and spead the mass on a oiled tray until it becomes cold and as firm as tofu, then serve it diced together with sliced onions (optional) oil, pepper and lemon juice, or you fry it and serve as filling of genoan focaccia (flat bread).
Genoa was famous for its rich militar and merchant fleets sailing Mediterranean Sea together with Venice fleet, also during Muslim domination…

Ca alors ! In Marseille, we have also have a local streetfood specialty called “panisse” which can unfortunatly hardly be found in a few stalls nowadays. It is certainly the local adaptation of an italian preparation considering that most of Marseille specialties have been brought by the numerous south italian immigrants of the beginning of the 20th centuries. But strangely enough it is deepfried slices, very very similar (identical?) to the “panella” and your thua phu thawt, but not to the “panissa”. The “panissa” looks more similar to the Nice’s famous socca.
And than you for so much your blog by the way. Thanks to you we had lovely time and much fun in Crokmai last time we were in Bangkok 🙂

Sounds delicious. When we were in Italy (in the Liguria region) I was really surprised to find that they use chick pea flour to make farinata, which is maybe what acquaviva was describing, but I thought they cooked it a wood fire oven. Anyhow it was delicious and my attempts to recreate it at home were unsuccessful. Don’t think I ever had panelle in sicily. Interesting connection.

Liz farinata is very thin and it is a mix of chickpea flour, water and oil coocked in the oven like pizza, panissa is a thicker and chewy, prepared like polenta pouring chickpea flour in boiling water. Both of them are very popular in Liguria but you can find panissa also in Southern France and farinata in Northern Tuscany…

Interesting stuff, everybody. Incidentally, I made panelle at home a while back, w/out even realising that it’s the same thing eaten in Mae Hong Son! I’ve also tried making socca, but that was a huge failure.

[…] even Chiang Mai. Items such as as sesame oil (used as a condiment, not simply as a frying fat) and chickpea flour, and as mentioned in this post, even some of the cooking methods, are things I’ve never […]

Chickpea & Lathyrus flour based foods in India pre-date Islamic anything by millennia!! MANY Thousands of years!!! Parched chickpea and barley flour are ancient foods, the latter the MOST ancient food mentioned in the RgVeda.

If anything, the Italian foods must have come from Near Eastern sources, rather than a purely “Arabic” provenance, per se [although under the aegis of the Islamic rulers, it is true].

There were Indian settlers into northern Burma from ancient times, as well as maritime traders from Bengal & Gujarat, again THOUSANDS of YEARS before Islam ever existed!! Chickpea flour AND CHICKPEA dal would inevitably move with them. Upper Burma is a center of Indic civilization with its own set of origin myths [Kamboja etc.], and Indic agriculture patterns [chickpea, pigeon pea, tamarind]. Please study carefully the history of this region inform yourself of its foodways.

Even today, the rainshadow region cultivates chickpea as a major winter crop, EXACTLY following the pattern in North India. Not Lathyrus, a better choice given the climate & soil as common in Bangladesh & Central India, but Chickpeas!! Does that ring a bell? Deep acculturation.

Please carefully read the origin myths of Upper Burma & you might glimpse why this is so. This idea of culture i.e. descent from North Indian ruling tribes has spilled over into crop choice and, consequently, into preferred foodstuffs.

These chickpea “dumplings” boiled or steamed, then fried or cooked in many ways are a STAPLE all over Northern, Western & eastern India since the neolithic ages when our love affair with the chickpea began. There is no need to invoke a tortuous Muslim origin!!

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