As someone who loves to cook, I was anxious to do some research on Panamanian cooking in preparation for our move to Panama from Canada this summer.
I was pleasantly surprised to find an abundance of Panamanian recipes online. Many of these include typical Caribbean or Latin American fare – things like ceviche, empanadas, and tortillas – but it was easy to find some dishes that are more popular in Panama than elsewhere.
Trying to define the “authentic cuisine of Panama” can get confusing because of Panama’s privileged location at the crossroads of North and South America, Pacific and Atlantic, resulting in an influx of various cultural and culinary influences. These influences from around the globe have continued to grow alongside Panama’s own flourishing future as a travel destination. Think successful Italian, Chinese, and Mediterranean restaurants in Panama City, and some bleeding-over of imported cultures into fusion cuisine and sophisticated globalized gastronomy. It’s difficult to say something is exclusively or distinctively Panamanian. A lot of the cultures in the area and around Central and Latin America share recipes or have invented their own versions of dishes that go by the same name.
For example, a lot of websites list carimanolas as an exclusively Panamanian dish. Even the world-renowned celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse (BAM!) has them listed as Panamanian on the Food Network website.
It’s definitely true that a lot of carimanolas – yummy deep-fried potato & ground beef patties – are eaten by Panamanians. But they’re also regularly consumed in neighboring Colombia.
It’s not surprising Emeril chose carimanolas – Panama is a country of starches and root vegetables. Many of their dishes revolve around rices, grains, legumes and “corms” or “cormels” (think of a bulb-shaped stem).
So I thought I’d give carimanolas a try myself. And since we are a family who loves any kind of bread product, I also decided to try another Panamanian original – hojaldres — which are widely known as a traditional Panamanian breakfast food.
First, a bit about carimanolas: they’re made from a Caribbean staple – the yuca root. To the veteran Caribbean cook, yuca is about as common as the potato here in Canada. But to newbies like me, I had never heard of it before.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about yuca:
First of all, it’s pronounced “you-ka,” not “yuck-a.”
Secondly, yuca the root is not to be confused with yucca the plant.
You’ll often see references to “yucca” as food on various websites. But this stems from confusion with the similarly-spelled but botanically-unrelated yuca, also called cassava.
As you can see from the picture of my son holding a yuca root, it rather resembles an extra-long and dark-coloured version of a sweet potato. And believe me, it is just as rock-hard.
A Useful Resource on Panamanian Cooking
One of the more informative websites I found that helps give perspective to Panamanian cooking not only gives Panamanian recipes but also explains its origins and even offers a glossary of Spanish, Panamanian and Central American cooking terms.
Canadians are familiar with the Jamaican meat-stuffed patty – carimanolas are kind of like that, except they don’t use flour-based dough.
You peel, cut up and boil the yuca like you would a potato. Then that is mashed down and turned into a kind of dough. You form pockets with the dough, stuff them with a yummy ground beef mixture and deep-fry them until golden brown.
If you try Emeril’s recipe, here are a couple of helpful tips I discovered on my own:
Make sure when you peel the yuca, you peel deep into the root so that there is not even a hint of the rind left. I didn’t peel deep enough, and as a result there were these stringy remnants left in my final product. I’m not sure why, but the recipes I’ve seen for carimanolas all say to not overcook the yuca, to “simmer until tender, but not falling apart.” I don’t really get this, since you have to thoroughly mash the cooked yuca anyway. It’s like making mashed potatoes – the more cooked (mushy) the potatoes, the easier they are to mash, right? Because I followed the advice of not over-cooking, I had a heck of a time mashing the yuca, and was left with hard clumps in my final product. I don’t see the benefit of this.
Next time, Emeril, I will cook until mushy.
Once you have that figured out, the rest is pretty standard. The end result is crunchy on the outside, with a moist and delicious potatoey-ground beef concoction on the inside. Both my hubby and son thought they were yummy, especially with some sour cream on the side. I have to tell you, this recipe is very labour-intensive – completely unlike the hojaldres, which were simple and quick to whip up.
As you can see from the hojaldres recipe, all you need is flour, salt, baking powder, sugar, oil and water – that’s it. You mix it together to form a dough, and deep-fry them.
Just one hint I’ll give you that I discovered about making hojaldres:
The dough ends up being sort of rubbery in texture, so when you stretch it out to form flat pieces, make sure it is stretched very thin. I mean, really thin – almost to the point where you can see through it. When you plop it into the deep fryer, it will thicken up somewhat.
If it’s too thick, you’ll end up with a big clump of dough. Keeping them paper thin is what makes them moist and delicious.