Panama is a country full of diversity at every angle, and that is certainly the case when it comes to food. Panamanians have a rich gastronomical tradition that spans centuries of influence from all over the world. They also have a burgeoning restaurant scene in the country that mixes old styles with new ones, and practically everything in between. If you want real, delicious, home-cooked Panamanian food, there are literally hundreds of options to choose from, whether in the city, countryside, mountains, or beach area. So in the essence of efficiency, and narrowing it down for newcomers (and long-time Panama expats), we’ve pick five of our favorite “must-eat” foods to try in Panama. Buen provecho!
While the idea of what essentially is chicken soup may not be at the top of your list when visiting or living in a tropical country, we highly recommend you try sancocho. Why? Because it’s as authentic of a staple in Latin America as rice and beans, and Panama’s version is truly representative of the country’s tastes, and local ingredients. Sancocho is a soup that is packed with veggies, boiled potatoes, Caribbean-style spices, and of course, a full piece of chicken for flavor. It’s hearty, full of distinct flavors, and available at pretty much any Panamanian’s house, or at any local restaurant. It’s also very economical, with large bowls typically costing around $3-$4.
While ceviche is certainly not exclusive to just Panama, the Panamanian version is well known in the region, and considered to be the best in Central America. This is because Panama has access to great, fresh fish, as well as citrus and other veggies, which are the staple ingredients of ceviche. You can get some of the best ceviche in the world at the “Mercado de Mariscos” outdoor fish market in Panama City, and it will only cost you about $2.50 for a heaping cup. Ceviche is also very healthy, and drinking the citrus juice at the bottom of the cup is considered an aphrodisiac, as well as a healthy finish to your meal.
Like most Caribbean, and Pacific tropical countries, Panamanians love their fried food. And one of the best fried dishes around is the Carimañola. These are handmade, stuffed yucca balls with either meat or cheese inside, breaded, and deep fried to a crispy perfection. They are so packed with flavor, and so moist on the inside, they’ll remind you of dumplings with a thicker shell. Plus, the yucca really holds well, making them less messy than you would think, and absorbing lots of flavor from both the batter, as well as the filling. Try these as an appetizer, or a snack with beers during happy hour!
Traditionally a holiday dish, you can get fantastic tamales in Panama all year round if you like. A tamal is made of corn meal dough, stuffed with a variety of things including beef, pork, chicken, vegetables, or a combination of any of the above. But the real joy of tamales is how they’re cooked, and how they’re served. This classic Panamanian dish is cooked inside a big banana leaf, which steams it, keeps the inside nice and moist, and adds to the flavor retention. Tamales are filling, full of diverse flavors, and best served piping hot over the holidays with friends.
Now go out and start tasting all of this great Panamanian food!