Food Tales

Bridging Continents Through Food in Panama

by Erik Trinidad
The patio at restaurant Fonda Lo Que Hay. Photo courtesy of Fonda Lo Que Hay.

Insatiable food writer and video editor Erik Trinidad eats his way through Panama for this primer on the New Panamanian food movement.

PANAMA – At first glance, almonjabános, a delicacy hailing from Panama’s Chiriqui province, looked to me like oversized cheese doodles. The corn and cheese fritters, tapered at the ends to form a slight “S” shape could very much be an unspoken predecessor of the American snack food. However, the batch before me wasn’t made in a factory, nor did it come out of a vacuum-sealed bag. It was made fresh by an indigenous woman, with corn she had just ground with a hand crank grain mill, in the kitchen where the rest of my Panamanian meal was being prepared.

As a traveler who seeks out the meals that are most representative of a place, I was admittedly at a loss of what the country might have to offer, gastronomically speaking, other than recipes of general Latin American fare. I thought I was looking for an iconic Panamanian dish to hone in on, like the pupusas of El Salvador or arepas of Venezuela. However, as I traveled and ate my way through the country, having conversations with chefs and artisans in the food space, it became clear that Panamanian cuisine is a cultural patchwork like the country itself.

“Panama’s cuisine is a melting pot of many cultural influences, from the Spanish conquistadores to the Afro-Antillians, Portugal, and France — with their attempt to build the Canal. And later, the United States’ influence. [It all] gave shape to our cuisine,” said Charlie Collins, the celebrated Panamanian chef who runs T’Ach restaurant at Hotel Panamonte. T'Ach (an indigenous word for food), is the destination dining room in the historic, century-old ranch-style property. Collins and his staff prepare thoughtful dishes in a relaxed, elegant setting with cozy vintage furniture, a cobblestone fireplace, and seating on a covered porch.

His dishes soon arrived at the table, and the almonjabános were complemented with chicharrones (fried pork cracklings) and patacones (fried green plantains). Next came bowls of guacho, a typical Panamanian rice dish similar to risotto — this particular one was prepared with boneless pig tails and pigeon peas. The course that followed was what many consider to be Panama’s national dish: sancocho, a hearty meat and vegetable soup found across Latin America. Chef's provincial recipe called for corn, cassava, and otoe — a local taro root, staple vegetable of the Ngäbe and Buglé tribes — plus young hens for protein. Like a proper Vietnamese pho, much attention must go to the creation of the broth, which Collins make flavorful and rich using chicken skin fat.

This was just one of the authentic meals I sought out during my stay in Boquete, a hub of locals, expats, and adventure travelers, in the western highlands of Panama. Because I was staying at Hotel Panamonte, I had the pleasure of dining at T’Ach more than once. Breakfasts included the Panamanian staple fry bread, hojaldras, made especially flakier and fluffier than those I’d sampled at other places. Small plates included otoe croquetas, served with a reduction of local Abuelo rum and Panamanian Geisha coffee, and strips of tasajo (smoked dried meat) with olive oil, garlic, and herbs. Larger courses featured local Angus steak with potatoes and mushrooms, and sea bass topped with cherry tomato and migas (Iberian breadcrumbs), served with a curry sauce. For dessert, I delighted in the fresh sorbet of local naranjilla — a tart citrus fruit also known as lulo, with hints of kiwi and pineapple — and cascos de guayaba (guava shells) with fresh Panamanian cheese, rhubarb, strawberries, and chocolate.

Tuna carpaccio and sexy concolon at Fonda Lo Que Hay. Photos courtesy of Fonda Lo Que Hay.

Old Is New Again

Collectively, all these dishes were an expression of “new Panamanian cuisine,” a movement resulting from a relatively recent resurgence of interest in preparing the local recipes. In fact, Collins is partly responsible for this particular gastronomic revival. After an early career overseas, Collins returned to his native Panama and visited kitchens where people were preparing food in traditional ways — indigenous tribal villages, Afro-Caribbean communities, and regions still holding onto their culinary heritage before the Panama Canal became the commercial connector between the East and West. Years of exploration resulted in T’Ach: Authentic Panamanian Cuisine, a collaborative, comprehensive report by Collins that inspired a new generation of chefs to look at the mosaic of Panama’s culinary traditions, rescue them, and elevate them for a new generation of diners.

In the past, Panamanian dishes weren’t a part of the conversation when writing gourmet menus, even in cosmopolitan Panama City and its burgeoning restaurant scene. Up until the mid 2010s, the local craving was for international cuisine, including an increasing number of American fast food chains.

Today, while dining options in Panama City continue to be international — Japanese, Chinese, and Lebanese, to name a few — Panamanian eateries prepare local dishes to entice those who seek out its flavors. Executive chef José Olmedo Carles Rojas, from Award-winning restaurant Fonda Lo Que Hay, offers an inventive Panamanian menu in a hip and funky setting. The restaurant’s name literally translates to “whatever there is,” and it’s a cooking concept of just throwing random ingredients together, albeit in an elevated way.

Concolon is the crispy layer of rice crust at the bottom of a pot — a delicacy consumed in many countries — but here, it’s intentionally formed into rigid, manicured pancakes, sliced, and labeled as “Sexy Concolon” on the menu. I feasted on that titillating dish, plus more of “whatever” — cassava tostadas with tuna carpaccio and onion ceviche; lettuce wraps with pickles, cashew butter, and sesame seed dressing; smoked corn empanadas filled with cheese, served with a smoked tomato dipping sauce; and roasted cobia fish with curry, grilled veggies, and patacones. For dessert, there was raspado, shaved ice with condensed milk and various sweeteners, a typical frozen treat that I also tasted from a Panama City street vendor during a hot summer stroll.

On the other side of town, restaurant El Trapiche prides itself on serving more traditional dishes in a more traditional setting. In addition to preparing local renditions of Latin American staples like ropa vieja and arroz con pollo, you'll find carimañola, a meat-stuffed yuca turnover, and tamal de olla, the Panamanian version of a tamale, cooked not in a banana leaf, but in a pot, as a casserole. Of course, a traditional Panamanian meal wouldn’t be complete without those cheese doodle-looking almonjabános, which join the other dishes in their “Fiesta Panamena” sampler offering.

Chocolate delights at Nomé. Photo courtesy of Nomé.

A Diverse Palate

Meanwhile, in kitchens in the northern province of Colón, the palate is a little more multicultural. This is the Caribbean-facing coastal region where trade ships enter the Panama Canal from the Atlantic side. Colón is a portal, collecting influences from the Americans, West Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and sub-Saharan Africans. In fact, the port city of Portobelo — once an active center of the slave trade — has a thriving present-day Congolese community with restaurants serving seafood-focused Afro-Caribbean cuisine. At El Bongo, I lunched on ceviche, cazuela de mariscos (a coconut milk-based seafood stew), and fried calamari — affectionately called arañitas (little spiders) for their tentacle shapes. I also enjoyed a sampling of savory stewed burgados, a type of mollusk in the sea snail family, commonly found on nearby reefs.

As I continued to eat my way through Panama, I realized why I couldn’t hone in on any single iconic Panamanian dish; the food landscape is as diverse as its geography. When visiting one of the rainforest villages of the Emberá tribe, I noshed on fried river fish and patacones, all served in a conical container made out of a banana leaf. At farm-to-tabIe restaurant Cerro Brujo in the western highlands, Chef Patricia Miranda Allen prepared simple dishes with fresh ingredients from her adjacent garden, including a beef rump lasagna and a Panamanian bread pudding called mamallena. In the Azeuro peninsula of Panama’s Pacific coast, I dined on fresh octopus, buñuelitos (cod fritters), and a seafood version of guacho at La Quincha in Playa Venao. I sampled artisanal bon-bons from the folks at Nomé, a chocolatier in Panama City that uses world-class, locally sourced cacao, a prized ingredient historically exported to European chocolatiers.

What you'll find at A to Z Chef's Table. Photo (left) by Sapir Cosa; photo (right) by Jozh Miranda.

Gastronomic Evolution

As dining habits evolve in Panama, so do the purveyors of its cuisine. I had the pleasure of partaking in the country’s first chef’s table experience, A to Z Chef’s Table in the Casco Viejo district of Panama City, which was as theatrical as it was delicious. At the helm was chef Ariel Zebede, who presented his courses with blowtorch flames, liquid nitrogen, and dry ice effects — and even with some items lowered down on a platform from the ceiling. Gimmicks aside, Zebede’s “A to Z Experience” was one of the more memorable dining journeys I’ve had anywhere.

“We always take inspiration from Panamanian produce and flavors, but we do our own creation,” said Zebede, who worked in kitchens internationally before bringing his experience back to his homeland. “We don’t have a label for our style. It’s always changing depending on new local produce, flavors from childhood, or present day experiences.”

From Zebede’s mind came eclectic, contemporary dishes spanning the globe, including black garlic sourdough bread with hummus and heart of palm shawarma; a Caribbean king crab roll smothered in a reduced Champagne and burnt butter sauce; a “coffee cherry margarita” with chile de árbol and lime, chilled with liquid nitrogen; Thai-inspired charred tuna with reduced tom yum soup and green papaya; “wasted artichoke,” confit in butter and white wine sauce; smoked lamb with mint sauce; grouper in Béarnaise sauce with baby corn; “carne en palito,” A5 wagyu beef, seared by blowtorch, skewered with a mangrove branch; and cinnamon toast with caramelized white chocolate. The courses were dazzling, but the most memorable was a Panamanian-inspired plate of short rib tasajo on a sourdough hojaldre that complemented the array of dishes influenced by other countries.

“The construction of the Panama Canal brought people from all over the world,” Chef Charlie Collins told me. “So it’s not unusual to serve a meal that represents dishes from all over the world.”

As I left Panama, satiated with my belly full, I concluded that Panamanian cuisine is sometimes a localized version of Latin cuisine, sometimes multicultural and global, and sometimes just something that looks like cheese doodles.

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