Panama’s location in the middle of the tropics, access to two bountiful oceans and diverse cultural mix make for a rich culinary tradition. There is a bounty of fresh tropical fruits to choose from year round, think market stalls heaped high with papaya, pineapples and mangos, and you are thinking of Panama. In a country where you are never far from a coastline, catch of the day literally means caught that day. Sea food is especially common in the San Blas Islands. Culinary influences in Panama stem from Afro-Caribbean, Asian and indigenous communities, its Spanish roots, Latino neighbours and in recent years a burgeoning expat community from America and Europe.
As with everywhere in Latin America rice and beans are a staple. Cooked a dozen different ways arroz y frijoles will no doubt accompany your meal, in some way. Add to these two more Panamanian staples Yuca and Plantain. Yuca is a yellow root vegetable served boiled or fried. Plantain is a banana type fruit, cooked either green, fried and salted (patacones) or ripe, fried with sugar (plátanos maduros). A Caribbean variation on the staple diet is coconut rice, sweet rice cooked with coconut milk. The islands of Bocas del Toro are the best palce to experience the Caribbean food delights
Panamanians will tell you their national dish sancocho is a great hangover cure. This salty chicken broth with a few vegies actually does the trick. Sancocho recipes vary from province to province and every kitchen has its own special ingredients, so be sure to try a few. Another Panamanian specialty is carimañola, this snack is made with mashed yuca stuffed with egg or meat and deep fried. The deep frying doesn’t stop there. Enpanadas are deep fried corn patties filled with meat. Ceviche is a local seafood dish that makes a great appetizer. It’s raw seafood marinated in lemon juice with onion and chili. The citric acid actually cooks the seafood and kick starts your digestion.
Panamanians love their meat, typically served as bistec (steak) or shredded in a spicy tomato sauce locals call ropa viejo, which translates as old cloths. Beef is the meat of choice in the rural provinces. Chicken is also commonplace and pork is loved in the Caribbean. Fish and seafood are likely to be served at upper class functions like a wedding but are plentiful nationwide. In a typical restaurant fish will be served fried whole, filleted with a garlic sauce (al ajillo) or sautéed with onion and tomato (a la española). In some rural parts of Panama turtle eggs are still eaten, but huevos de Tortuga should always be declined if offered. It’s illegal and most species nesting in Panama are endangered.
For breakfast in Panama typical fair is a Hojaldras, a deep fried wad of dough sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, or huevos con tortillas, (eggs and tortillas). The tortillas are thick corn meal pancakes deep fried. Toast and fruit is also widely available, as is a good cup of locally grown coffee. On the Caribbean you might find a heaped bowl of gallo pinto, a rice and bean dish, served for breakfast.
For a cool refreshing drink pipa cannot be beat. Pipa is chilled water taken from a green coconut and often with soft coco jelly. As you would expect in the tropics fruit shakes (batidos) are plentiful, made with either water or milk and a heaped spoon of sugar, unless you say otherwise. Panamanians love their beer and there are a few local brands to choose from – Balboa, Panama and Atlas are mainstays and always welcome on a hot day. For a stronger drink try Seco, brewed in Panama, from sugar cane. This clear neutral flavoured, spirit, mixes well with almost anything. Chilled water is often served with the meal. Panama prides itself on having high quality water fit for drinking straight from the tap.