The words on the menu aren’t totally unfamiliar – tortillas, tamales, empanadas – but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve tasted anything like authentic Panamanian cuisine before. Order a tortilla in Panama and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find much more than just a flat flour placemat set before you; unlike Mexican-style tortillas, tortillas in Panama come fully-loaded like huevos rancheros: eggs and cheese piled on a golden-crisp corn batter tortilla. Seriously, I’m already hungry.
The fine dining in Panama City and at excellent restaurants throughout the country has many more delicious surprises in store for Panama travelers who want to get adventurous with their appetites. Thanks to Panama’s vibrant history and its unique position at the crossroads of East and West, taste-testing typical Panamanian dishes becomes a truly international culinary experience.
Techniques and ingredients borrowed from France have their origin in the influx of French workers who accompanied the earliest phases of the Panama Canal. Chinese influences arrived during the Canal’s later construction and perpetuated with the residual population of Chinese immigrants. The indelible mark left by Spanish cuisine dates back to the colonial period of the 17th century; not long afterward, the staple ingredients of Afro-Caribbean food (think coconut rice, plantains, and several varieties of native squash) began to appear in typical Panamanian dishes.
Thanks to this wealth of influences, a traditional meal in Panama never fails to pleasantly surprise your palate, evoking your favorite dishes from other cultures yet remaining distinctively Panamanian. But what does “distinctively Panamanian” mean, exactly?
A lot of the time, “distinctively Panamanian” means “fried.” Breakfast offerings include hojaldres (little puffs of fried dough that pair perfectly with a fresh cup of fine Panamanian coffee) as well as other meats and breads enhanced by either a delicate touch or deep immersion in oil.
But don’t let the abundance of fried options get you too worried about your waistline. It’s easy to enjoy a healthful, balanced diet in Panama thanks to the availability of nutritious fruits and vitamin-rich veggies (particularly in Panama’s agricultural breadbasket in the western highlands of Chiriqui). Fresh-caught local seafood such as shrimp, corvina, and snapper brings lots of protein and few calories to the table. And many of Panama’s signature dishes, such as ceviche and sancocho, are actually great choices for those looking to fill up and slim down.
While not heavily spiced, Panamanian cuisine is by no means bland. Relying mainly on salt, pepper, and a more potent version of cilantro (called “culantro“), Panamanian chefs let the ingredients themselves do most of the talking.
Your after-dinner coffee need not stand alone in Panama, thanks to a selection of delectable desserts available at fine restaurants throughout the country. To try your hand at making one of Panama’s signature sweets, check out this recipe for yiyimbre, or Panamanian gingerbread.
A Taste of Panama in your Own Kitchen
Panamanian recipes can be difficult to find in cookbooks or recipe collections, but they’re becoming more and more accessible online. Click the link to view all the best recipes from Central America we’ve collected so far on The Ambler. And leave a comment if you’re craving something we haven’t covered yet – we’d love your input!