It’s just shy of 6:30 p.m. in Panama, and an overcast sunset creates this eerie bluish pall that reflects off the glistening granite countertops and stainless steel appliances of my kitchen. It’s as though a piece of the ocean just outside my window has been transported indoors by the low-hanging sun. Like the blue-green surf I hear roaring in the background, it stimulates the senses – and, with the dinner hour upon us, I am inspired.
In front of me: three gorgeous pounds of pargo (red snapper), filleted on the beach this morning by a Panamanian local with a very big knife. I resisted the urge to go for the corvina (sea bass) and seasonally-available langostino (large prawns) as well — there’s always tomorrow. The Gorgona Fish Market lies on a simple stretch of Pacific beach just 5 minutes from where we live in Panama and early each day, the local fishermen bring in their catch-of-the-morning.
But the fish is only the tip of the iceberg of freshness happening in my kitchen. I’ve been hitting the ubiquitous fresh produce stands in Panama hard, and the evidence is all over my countertop. Mangoes, papayas, guavas, oranges, limes, pineapples, bananas, and avocados. Also peppers (both hot and sweet), potatoes, onions, yuca, plantains, tomatoes, broccoli – even leaf lettuce (I got lucky). Typically, the tropics are not the place to find your favorite leafy greens – arugula, butterhead, romaine, baby spinach – but they are home to numerous tropical produce varieties novel to North Americans.
On the menu tonight: an appetizer of fresh-cut pineapple with sharp cheddar cheese, followed by fish tacos in “homemade” corn tortillas and a chorizo stir-fry.
First, my fish marinade. I am totally winging it, but with the wide selection of fabulous sauces and spices from mild to picante available in Panamanian supermarkets, ad-libbing is easy. Two of my favourites are made locally in the nearby town of Chame: El Pampero Chimichurri (a simple but scrumptious garlic-parsley sauce) and the creamy Aderezo Especial de Ajo, which translates to “Special Garlic Dressing.” Vague, I know – all you need to know is that it contains 55% garlic! A pungent punch, for sure.
I simply cut the filets into small pieces and add my El Pampero, some sour cream, a dash of hot sauce, pinch of cumin, some freshly-ground black pepper, and a squeeze of lime juice. The special sauces certainly add flavor, but the fresh lime is essential, as in a lot of Latin American cuisine. Its tartness accents the bolder flavors in tangy chicken recipes, refreshing tropical cocktails, and scrumptious guacamole. Locally-grown limes are sold everywhere in Panama, and for a pittance, I picked up a dozen of these tiny green gems.
While the fish marinates in the fridge, I pull out my corn tortillas. I lied when I said they were homemade – but they are home-fried. Using a pair of kitchen tongs, I deep-fry the tortillas for about 15 seconds, shaping into taco shells until they’re crispy. This method puts store-bought taco shells to shame. Try it sometime, it’s too quick and easy not to.
Preparing toppings is a breeze too. Just slice into one of Panama’s huge avocados to top your taco with thin spears of its pale green flesh, chop up fresh tomatoes and red cabbage, and keep the cool sour cream handy.
More of my local produce hoard makes its way into the stir-fry with the chorizo. To complement this Panamanian staple, I cut up potatoes, red peppers, onions, and broccoli, adding in some minced garlic and snow peas in a light drizzle of oil. After my son and I sampled “chorizo on a stick” in the beautiful mountain village of El Valle (and loved it), I had to pick up some of this spicy sausage at the local supermarket.
My chorizo stir-fry sizzling away on one side of the gas range and the marinated fish getting a quick sauté on the other, my feast is coming together just as the intoxicating aromas are reaching critical levels.
But first, the appetizer. The sharp cheddar cheese strikes the perfect contrast to the full, sweet pineapple I’d picked up just that morning. Pineapples are a growing commodity in Panama. Although nowhere near Costa Rica’s (since Panama only started exporting around eight years ago), pineapple exports to the US and Europe are expected to double in the coming years thanks to government subsidies. It’s easy to see why Panama wants to capitalize on its pineapples: they’re huge, and always delicious – sweet, never tart.
Not much time has passed since I decided to make the Panama sunset my culinary muse, but my simple preparations have paid off in a table piled with delicious food and everyone ready to devour it. We load our pargo tacos and crunch into the tasty fish — not potently fishy-tasting by itself, it carries its flavors well, delivering on my impromptu marinade in a big way. The colorful chorizo stir-fry satisfies our awakened appetites with its filling mixture of vegetables and spicy sausage.
The sun has set, cooling ocean breezes are wafting in through the window, and mouths are being filled. As we savor the variety of delicious taste sensations brought forth from our tropical surroundings, the dinner table is void of conversation — the biggest compliment any chef could ask for.
More from Jacki’s Kitchen
Learn how to make classic carimañolas and hojaldres a la Panama in Jacki’s first food piece on The Ambler — written as she and her family were preparing for the big move abroad! It’ll surely whet your appetite for a taste of Panama.