I found myself wandering the aisles of my hometown grocery store in Ohio last week, my shopping cart filled with a veritable smorgasbord of goodies: frozen pizzas, Cheetos, Oreos…
Despite covering all of the main food groups, I felt like I was missing something. As I continued to walk the fluorescently-lit aisles it dawned on me: I was craving Panamanian food, and after a year of living abroad, I’d become quite attached to a number of delicacies impossible to find back home in Ohio.
Beautiful Panama — a cultural crossroads that quickly impresses visitors with its one-of-a kind views and eclectic fusion of flavors — makes for reluctant departures and long lists of things travelers find themselves pining for upon their return home. Here are a few of my favorites from the culinary realm:
Amazing seasonal fruit
From maracuyá (passion fruit) to mangoes, Panama has a colorful bounty of fresh flavors impossible to find in many other parts of the world. Even more surprisingly, Panama fruits flourish during the winter seasons of other regions, making the heaving fruit trees and fields full of fresh pineapple even more impressive to foreigners from frozen lands.
Ropa Vieja from Chiriquí-raised cattle
One of Panama’s most famed dishes, made from local stock. Different regions of Panama offer their own take on the savory stew, but my favorite variety is made in the province of Chiriqui. It’s a filling, stick-to-your-ribs meal, and can be found at roadside diners and traditional restaurants throughout the region. Definitely not something you can take home with you, but no matter, because it tastes best when you can enjoy a bowl while feasting on the wild Chiriqui landscape and rolling hills.
Delida’s hot sauce
Perfect for drizzling on the catch of the day, just-fried patacones, and just about everything in between. This bright orange sauce delivers a surge of garlic and roasted pepper that is not for the faint of heart. Visitors have been known to line the bottom of their suitcases to bring this fiery favorite back home.
Coffee plantations abound in the lush highlands of Chiriquí; it’s hard to go wrong with so many great options. Savor a cup of freshly-brewed java and take a tour of one of the production facilities, but don’t forget to purchase bags to go. I have a waiting list of relatives lined up for the next bag of Café Ruiz coffee — after one taste of the bold brew, they never looked at their standard morning sludge the same way again.
Abuelo rum may very well be the best bargain in Panama. Combine locally-harvested sugarcane with over 100 years of tradition and the result is a full-bodied rum perfect for sipping over ice on a steamy Panama afternoon. The low sticker price is often shocking to visitors, who admire the quality of the drink and make easy comparisons to top shelf liquors from their home countries on every point except price.
If you do plan to bring some flavors of Panama home with you, remember that airline and export guidelines prohibit you from taking fruit, vegetables, and meats on your return flight (all the more reason to indulge to your heart’s content while in Panama). Coffee and rum, however, are easily transportable and can be bought in the duty-free section of Panama City’s Tocumen airport.
With so many unique fresh flavors, a trip to Panama will definitely leave you hungry for more. Savor every moment and stuff your suitcase with goodies — hopefully they’ll hold you over until your next visit!