Knowing I’m a bit of a foodie, my friends often ask me to describe the traditional cuisine of Panama. After my first visit to Panama City I found that hard to do. It’s easy to find great sushi, Italian and French all over town – Panama City has a smorgasborg of international offerings – but the traditional Panamanian food gets a bit lost in the shuffle if you don’t know where to go.
When we’re out in the rural area near Isla Palenque, we stay at two of the few current lodging choices close by: an American-owned establishment with a Russian chef, or a European-owned place with an Italian chef, so…you know. Not much Panamanian food there.
But there is a Panamanian cuisine, and it can be found all over the country, if you go off the tourist-beaten path. Here’s a brief description I stole from Wikipedia: Panamanian cuisine is a unique mix of Spanish, African, Native American cooking and cuisines. Typical foods are mildly flavored, without the pungency of some of Panama’s Latin American and Caribbean neighbors. Common ingredients are maize, rice, wheat flour, plantains, yuca (cassava), beef, chicken, and seafood such as corvina, shrimp, and lobster. Corvina is a mild fish commonly called bream in the U.S.
For seafood lovers there are many Panamanian joys to be found in a country where almost anything can be made into a ceviche. For tropical fruit lovers, you’ve never had pineapple or papaya so good. For steak lovers, you won’t find the tenderness of American beef, but Panama is proud of their cowboy ranching culture, and to me their beef is more flavorful. Who knows, maybe that’s how American beef tasted a hundred years ago before commercial farming.
Not spicy, but rich in flavor and the heritage of several cultures, Panama cuisine is a unique hybrid and worth the trip. Here’s a Panamanian home-cooking specialty for you to try in your own kitchen. I chose it because most of the ingredients are readily available in the U.S. I adapted it from several versions of the same recipe. Give it a try!
Arroz con Pollo/Chicken with Rice
1 3-lb chicken, cut into pieces
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
2-3 red or mixed peppers, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2-3 large tomatoes, chopped
1 bay leaf
1/2 t ground black pepper
1 t salt
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups rice, uncooked
2 cups water
1 T annatto seeds (These are mostly to make the rice a yellow color. You can use annatto oil instead of vegetable oil, or saffron can be substituted, or you can leave it out.)
1 cup frozen sweet peas, thawed
2 carrots, grated
1/2 cup stuffed green olives, sliced
Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Heat the oil and fry the chicken pieces until brown. Add the onion, peppers and garlic and saute until golden. Deglaze the pan with the wine. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, pepper and salt and simmer for 5 minutes. Heat the water with the annatto seeds until boiling, then add the water to the pan, straining out the annatto seeds which you can discard. Add the rice. Cover and cook over medium heat until it begins to boil. Reduce the heat and let cook until the water is absorbed. If the rice isn’t soft yet, add a little more hot water until rice is ready. Remove from heat and stir in sweet peas, carrots and olives. Remove bay leaf. Serve.