Panama's palate-pleasing flavours

Panamanian food reflects the country’s multi-layered history and its mix of identities. There is an ancestral Central American layer, which can be traced back to some of the country’s original indigenous peoples, such as the Ngobe, Buglé, Naso, Bokotá, Kuna, Emberá, Wounaan and Bri-Bri. Like the great Central American civilisations, these used locally grown staples for their food including corn and various types of tubers. The oldest samples of corn, chillies and yams found in the Americas, said to date back around 8000 years, have been discovered at a site called the Ladrones cave in Panama. On top of this layer came successive waves of African migration connected to the slave trade from the 16th century onwards.

This heritage places Panama closer to the Caribbean, and some have argued that in culinary terms Panama is more part of the Caribbean than it is part of the continental mainland.

Then there is the strong presence of Spain, the colonial power up to the beginnings of the 19th century, and a link to the Creole tastes and cuisine not only of second-, third- and fourth-generation descendants of Spaniards, but also of nearby Latin America (Panama was a province of Colombia in 1821-1903).

The construction of the Panama Canal at the beginning of the 20th century also triggered great migratory movements that have left their mark on the nation’s palate. It added a European presence with people coming from Britain, France and the French West Indies, Greece, Spain and Italy. US army engineers led the Canal works, and the US ran the Canal Zone for most of the 20th century. There was also significant inwards migration from China and from India to join the ranks of railroad and canal construction workers.

A Rich Mix of Ingredients

The result of this history and demography is a rich mix of foods. Primary ingredients include bananas, plantains, corn tortillas, tubers such as yucca, ñame, ñampi, otoe and potatoes. Typical dishes include sancocho (a soup made with meat, tubers, and vegetables), arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), tamales (a corn dough steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper, which can be filled with meats, cheeses, fruit or chillies) and guacho (a thick soup made with ñame, rice, vegetables, and meat – beef, pig tail or chicharrón, the local name for pork cracklings). Unlike some Caribbean and Mexican food, Panamanian cooking is on the whole moderately spiced and seasoned. Sancocho occupies an important place in Panamanian cooking. There are different varieties but pride of place goes to chicken sancocho, cooked with yucca root, cilantro (coriander), oregano and onion. Panamanians say it is great for parties, to fight the common cold and to restore energy. During carnival sancocho is said to have great restorative qualities, and is considered an effective cure for hangovers.

Other favourite foods are patacones – green plantains that are pressed, deep-fried and seasoned and can be considered a local substitute for French fries.

Arroz con guandu is a rice side-dish cooked in coconut water with guandu, a bean which originates from Africa. Another popular main dish is ropa vieja (old clothes) – shredded beef or pork cooked in tomato sauce and served with rice.

Breakfast in Panama is often a hearty meal with eggs, toast and fruit complemented with tortillas (which are thicker than in Mexico) and fried meats and hojaldras, a type of deep-fried bread rather like a doughnut. Gallo pinto or “spotted rooster” is a mix of rice, beans, and pork which has also been called “Caribbean porridge”.

Chichas & Seco

Panama has a wide range of local beers, which are usually served cold. Local brands include Balboa, Atlas, Panamá, Soberana and Cristal. There is also a new wave of microbreweries in urban centres such as Panama City. There are plentiful fruit juices known as chichas. Popular alcoholic drinks include rum and seco (“dry”), a spirit made from fermented sugar cane, which is sometimes served with milk (known as seco con vaca or “dry with cow”) but can also be offered with Coca-Cola or straight.

Visiting the Fish Market

As a narrow strip of land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, it is natural that fish and seafood should feature prominently in Panama’s eating habits. In fact, although there are different theories over the origins of the country’s name, one of the most credible is that it means “an abundance of fish”. One of the best ways of savouring this side of Panama’s culinary culture is to visit the Mercado del Marisco, or seafood market, in the capital. Here you can eat a wide range of fish delicacies in restaurants or roadside stands. One of the most popular is ceviche, fresh raw fish cured in citrus fruits and seasoned with chilli peppers. Ceviche is eaten throughout many countries in Central and South America, particularly in Peru, from where it may have originated. In the Mercado del Marisco it can be bought for around $1 a glassful. Also on offer is another great favourite, corvina frita – fried sea bass.

Many Panamanian families and tourists can be found strolling around the fish market and the main pier of the Panamanian Maritime Authority. Local fishermen come and go with baskets carrying their odoriferous catch. Strains of music such as boleros can be heard from some of the restaurants. Pensioners wearing traditional guayabera shirts sit in bars doing the newspaper crosswords. Men discuss football and baseball under the shade of a tree.

By 10 in the morning the restaurants are already doing business. They have slightly eccentric names: Econo-Fish, No se fía (No money lent) and El Rompeolas (the breakwater). Emi Reina, owner of Delicias Emi (Emi’s Delicacies) told local newspaper La are ceviche and fried sea bass with patacones. The tourists favour ceviches of squid and shrimp.

The New Wave in Cooking

In recent years Panamanian cooking has been at the centre of a process of renewal and re-invention. A new wave of restaurateurs and chefs has been using traditional recipes as the basis for innovation and experimentation. Panama City has seen the emergence of fusion, vegetarian, vegan and macrobiotic restaurants. The first gastronomic column appeared in a local newspaper in 1998 – they are now widespread.

A series of annual gastronomy fairs, known as Panamá Gastronómica, began in 2010. According to the organisers of Panamá Gastronómica, the event currently attracts an average of 12,000 visitors. Each year it has a special theme. In 2013 it was “Gastronomy in the digital era”, and in 2014 the theme was “Multiple cultures, one identity”. In 2015 the fair won the “best gastro project” prize awarded by the Spanish organisation Premio Excelencias Gourmet. Also in 2015, Ferrán Adriá, of the Spanish restaurant elBulli, who is considered to be one of the world’s top chefs, visited Panama. Adría is developing a project to promote innovation and creativity in cuisine. He met with a group of Panamanian chefs and insisted that in global terms “Latin America is the great revelation”.

Conceptual Cuisine

Typical of the Panamanian new wave in cooking might be Donde José, a “conceptual” restaurant run by chef José Carles, who wants to develop a new approach. “We have typical dishes but we don’t have a strong culinary identity,” Carles has said. He is experimenting with a tasting menu where each dish is designed to tell a story. An example is smoked tilapia fish topped with a garnish of puffy crispy rice. Tilapia is not native to Panama, but was introduced during the construction of the canal, so Carles says the dish is intended to represent the country’s history and the evolution of its culinary ingredients. Another of his creations is cangrejo y tajada (crab and slice), a ripe plantain top with a crab bottom, mixed with celery, crab mustard and smoked salt. The plantain on top is lightly scorched using a blowtorch. Panama City offers a wide range of restaurants and cuisines. It is possible to find Lebanese, Spanish, Japanese, Colombian, Venezuelan, Chinese, US and French restaurants with ease. Restaurants usually serve dinner between 7pm and 10pm, with higher-end restaurants generally open until 11pm.

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