Unveiling Panama's Culinary Tapestry
When I first arrived in Panama, I couldn't wait to immerse myself in the local food scene. What I discovered was a culinary tapestry woven from the diverse influences of indigenous peoples, Afro-Caribbean cultures, Spanish conquerors, and more. Panama's cuisine is a reflection of its history, and it's a delightful mix of flavors and traditions.
Street Food Heaven: A Gastronomic Fiesta
Let's kick off our foodie adventure with the heart and soul of Panama's culinary scene--street food. From bustling food markets to vibrant street corners, Panama's street food is a fiesta for the senses.
One of my all-time favorites is patacones, crispy green plantains served with a variety of toppings like ceviche—a refreshing dish of seafood marinated in lime juice with onions and cilantro. The contrast of textures and flavors in each bite is simply divine.
Carimañolas, deep-fried yucca stuffed with savory fillings, and empanadas, flaky pastries filled with everything from ground beef to cheese, are popular street snacks that you can't resist. Perfect for munching while exploring Panama City's vibrant neighborhoods.
For those who love a good crunch, chicharrón (fried pork belly or pork rinds) and yuca frita (fried yuca) are must-try treats. Pair them with a splash of hot sauce for an extra kick.
On a warm Panama day, cool off with a raspado, a shaved ice dessert drizzled with colorful syrups. Or indulge in an esquimo, Panama's version of an ice cream sandwich, with a tropical twist.
From Farm to Table: Traditional Delights
While street food is a delicious introduction to Panama's cuisine, there's more to explore beyond the roadside stands. Traditional Panamanian dishes are a testament to the country's rich culinary heritage.
- Sancocho is Panama's ultimate comfort food—a hearty chicken soup brimming with vegetables, yams, and corn on the cob. It's often served at family gatherings and special occasions. Unlike other comfort food, this one is actually good for you.
- Arroz con guandú y coco is a beloved dish that features rice cooked with pigeon peas and coconut milk. The result is a subtly sweet and aromatic side dish that pairs perfectly with seafood or meat.
- Saril, also known as hibiscus, is a quintessential ingredient in many Panamanian dishes. It adds a vibrant red hue and a tangy flavor to beverages like saril fresco and savory dishes like saril rice.
- Ceviche de mariscos is a coastal delicacy you shouldn't miss. This dish combines a medley of marinated seafood, lime juice, and a dash of spicy aji chombo pepper. Thanks to Panama's abundant coastline, the ceviche is fresh and the types of ceviche available is mind-boggling.
- Chicheme is a sweet and creamy corn-based beverage is a beloved Panamanian tradition, often served at celebrations and gatherings. Its flavor is reminiscent of cinnamon and vanilla, making it a delightful drink to savor on a warm afternoon.
The Fusion of Flavors: International Influences
As an expat, one of the things I love most about Panama's cuisine is the fusion of international flavors. Thanks to its multicultural heritage, you'll find an array of restaurants serving global dishes with a Panamanian twist.
- Chifa (Chinese-Panamanian fusion) offers mouthwatering dishes like arroz chaufa (fried rice) and tallarines (stir-fried noodles). The flavors are a delightful blend of soy sauce, ginger, and local ingredients.
- Rondón (influenced by flavors of the Caribbean ) is a hearty coconut-based stew with seafood and root vegetables. It's a soul-warming dish, perfect for enjoying by the beach.
- Panama's Italian restaurants are a treat for pasta and pizza lovers. The use of fresh, local ingredients and a Panamanian touch make these dishes something special.
Beyond the Plate: Dining Experiences
While savoring Panama's cuisine is a feast for the taste buds, the dining experiences themselves are worth exploring.
- Pollera Dining: For an authentic Panamanian experience, dine at a pollera restaurant. These establishments often feature traditional decor and live folkloric music, creating a vibrant atmosphere to enjoy local dishes.
- Seafood Shacks by the Water: Some of the best seafood in Panama can be found in unassuming shacks along the coast. The combination of fresh catches and a sea breeze creates an unforgettable dining experience. There are about a dozen of these seafood shacks just minutes away from Casa Bonita, where you can rent apartments by the week, month or year. (Or better yet, you can buy your own slice of paradise.) My favorite seafood shack is Veramar, owned by the charming Sr. Ramon. If you tell him you're a friend of mine, he will treat you like royalty.
- Gourmet Dining in the City: Panama City's culinary scene is also home to upscale restaurants that offer gourmet takes on traditional dishes, as well as international cuisine. Dining in the city's chic eateries is a testament to Panama's cosmopolitan flair. The quality of gourmet dining is one of the things that attracted me to Panama in the first place, and is what sets Panama apart from other Latin American countries.
The Culinary Exploration Continues
As I wrap up this mouthwatering journey through Panama's cuisine, I can't help but feel grateful for the flavors, traditions, and foodie adventures I've discovered here. Panama's culinary scene is a delightful blend of history, culture, and innovation—a true reflection of the diverse and vibrant country it represents.
So, whether you're an expat, a traveler, or a culinary enthusiast, Panama's delicious cuisine promises a treasure trove of flavors and experiences waiting to be explored. Until our next culinary adventure, my fellow food lovers, may your plates always be filled with the deliciousness of Panama.