Food (comida) In Panama
Its hard to explain the food here until you are actually here, but its really nothing like I could have ever expected. Being from Southern California we are exposed to amazing Mexican, Tex-Mex and Salvadoran cooking. Their cooking usually is based around seasonings and flavorings and lots of slow cooking. With Mexican food you can have anything from chilaquiles to tacos, burritos, enchiladas, Spanish rice and refried beans. El Salvador’s most notable dish is the pupusa, a thick handmade corn flour or rice flour tortilla stuffed with cheese, chicharrón (cooked pork meat ground to a paste consistency), refried beans or loroco (a vine flower bud native to Central America).
That being said no food in Central America is really anything like what you would find in Mexico! Panamanian food is largely influenced by the Caribbean and the many years of American influence during the years that the Panama Canal was being built and the US military presence. Quick example: there are many restaurants that serve typical Panamanian food alongside pizzas and lasagna. Weird right? To an outsider the food here might seem strange or inedible, but there are really some amazing dishes that you can get at local restaurants or fondas.
A typical Panamanian meal would consist of a meat (pork, chicken, slow-cooked beef, fried fish), white rice or arroz con coco, stewed lentils or beans, and a side of yucca or plantains. They also do not use much seasoning on their food here in Panama. Typical Panamanian foods are mildly flavored, without the pungency of some of Panama’s Latin American and Caribbean neighbors. This was a huge surprise and let down, when compared to food from the Caribbean which is usually very sweet and spicy or Mexico where food will be smoky and spicy.
Many Panamanian dishes are largely made from corn which is the indigenous influence that still stands to this day. The preparation is different from that of other Latin American corn dishes, the kernel is first cooked in water and then ground in order to obtain a dough (as opposed to using corn flour to obtain the dough). Fresh corn is used in some soup dishes here, but is rarely served as a side dish as it would be in the U.S.
Here is a small list of local specialties that you would find on a Panamanian menu:
Bollos: corn dough wrapped in corn husk or plantain leaves and boiled. There are two main varieties: fresh corn bollos (bollos de maíz nuevo) and dry corn bollos.
Empanadas-made either from flour or corn, stuffed with meats, cheese, and sometimes sweet fillings, such as fruit marmalade or manjar blanco (dulce de leche).
Hojaldres/Hojaldras: A type of fry-bread, similar to South American sopaipilla.
Patacones: Twice-fried green plantain disks, known in other countries as “tostones”.
Carimañola: Similar to an empanada, but made from yuca and stuffed with beef.
Arroz con camarones y coco: Rice with shrimp and coconut milk.
Sancocho- is a traditional soup or stew in several Latin American cuisines derived from the Spanish dish known as cocido that usually consists of large pieces of meat, tubers and vegetables served in a broth.
Bistec picado: Chopped beefsteak.
Pernil de pueco al horno: Roasted pork leg.
Chuletas en salsa de piña-pork chops in a pineapple sauce
Bistec de hígado: Liver steak.
Ropa vieja-Spanish for “old clothes,” is a dish consisting of stewed beef with vegetables, associated with Cuban and other Caribbean cuisines
Ceviche: Commonly made from corvina (Sea Bass)
Pescado Entero Frito-whole fried fish usually with corvina or pargo (red snapper). FYI the eyes are a delicacy!
Ensalada de papas: Potato salad, called ensalada de feria, when beetroot is added.
Tamal de olla- Tamale of the Pot/Pan,” is best described as Panamanian-style tamale that fills the baking pan in which it is cooked, and is not wrapped in a banana or plantain leaf
Plátano en tentacion: Ripe plantain cooked in a sweet syrup.
Tasajo- Dried, sometimes smoked meat, usually from beef though the word refers mainly to the mode of curing rather than the type of meat.
After reading that menu you can get a pretty good understanding of Panamanian food. They use lots of meat in their cooking, with a heavy emphasis on corn based products and mostly everything is fried or stewed!