Panama is the crossroads of the entire western hemisphere. As you'd imagine for such a culturally rich heritage, the culture of the country shows influences from a huge variety of places, both near and far.
The indigenous ancestors of modern Panamanians still have a large influence on the modern culture. They were the first to use the unusually rich variety of native herbs, vegetables and fruits that nature provides. Special recipes have been passed down generation to generation, and are still staples of the diet today.
When the Spanish came to the New World, they brought many European influences with them, like new herbs and vegetables, which adapted well to the tropical climate. New ingredients and new styles of cooking blended to create a wider variety of recipes. But Panamanian cuisine wasn't done evolving.
When the Panama Canal was created, it brought ships (and crews) from around the world to a country tucked away just above South America. A whole new flood of culinary influences took its turn in shaping the national food identity. African, Chinese and other cultures too many to name all lent a little of their flavor to the giant stewpot of Panamanian cuisine.
While the specific influences may be hard to separate out, you'll find it easy to enjoy the recipes of Panama.
Points of Interest
The name Panama means "abundance of fish and butterflies." But it could just as well be an abundance of tradition. Panamanian cuisine -a melting pot of native Indian, Afro-Caribbean, and Spanish influences - uses a wide variety of tropical fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
Panamanian food is similar to other Latin American countries, but relies less on hot peppers for flavor. Four of the five top Panamanian exports are foods: bananas, shrimp, sugar, and coffee.
The rich volcanic soil in Panama's western highlands makes this a major agricultural area where vegetables are plentiful and grown year-round. Plantains, yuca, beans, corn, and ñame are native plants. Other crops introduced by Spain include tomatoes, cabbage, and cucumbers.
Cucumber seeds were likely introduced to the Americas by Columbus - initially in Haiti. A classic dish featuring cucumbers is creamy, refreshing Sopa Fría de Pepinos or cold cucumber soup. Another vegetable dish, popular at Christmas, is a festive red-hued salad of potatoes and beets in a creamy dressing called Ensalada de Feria.
Beef, pork, chicken and, of course, seafood, are featured in Panamanian entrées. Sancocho, a chicken and vegetable stew made with ñame and seasoned with a cilantro-like herb called culantro, is eaten throughout the country and considered the national dish. Steak and the ubiquitous Latin American shredded beef dish, ropa vieja, are also commonplace.
With more than 1500 miles of coastline, Panama has more than plentiful seafood. Fruits of the sea include jumbo shrimp, lobster, crab, calamari, octopus, red snapper, and a prized sea bass called corvina. Seafood dishes are usually offered four ways: fried, grilled, al ajillo (in a spicy garlic sauce), or a la española (sautéed with tomatoes and onions).
Typical Panamanian side dishes include yuca (cut and cooked like French fries or mashed, stuffed with meat and hard-boiled eggs then deep-fried), plantains (green ones made into patacones and ripe ones broiled or fried), arroz con coco (coconut rice), and beans. A favorite snack is tamales prepared much like the Mexican version but boiled in banana leaves rather than steamed in corn husks.
While a variety of tropical fruits are grown in Panama, fresh fruit is usually not served in restaurants but rather offered at outdoor markets or fruit carts. The fruit cart vendors offer fresh pineapple, mango, and watermelon the Panamanian way - with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and a drizzle of vinegar. Pastel Invertido de Mango or Mango Upside-Down Cake uses mango in place of pineapple for a delectable twist on a sweet favorite.