I always like to learn about (and sample!) the local comida, or food, when I go somewhere new. Since I haven’t mentioned that so far, I figured it was about time that some food photos made it onto the blog!
Panamanian cooking is a blend of many other cultures, and is especially influenced by African, Spanish, and Native American cuisine. A typical breakfast consists of hojaldres – similar to fried dough but less sweet and sometimes topped with melted cheese; salchicas guisadas – “sausages” that are more like hot dogs in a tomato and onion sauce; fried or boiled yucca, eggs, and a cup of coffee. Lunch and dinner typically consist of fish or meat, rice, beans or lentils, and often patacones – twice fried green plantains, and juice or cerveza – beer.
Along the coasts there is a lot of seafood available, and a whole fried fish with patacones is very common (and delicious!).
Ceviche, or raw fish in citrus juice, is also very popular. There’s a huge fish market in Panama city where you can stock up on fresh fish or just get a little cone of ceviche for the road.
I’ve found that it is much more common to drink juice here than in the U.S. because there are so many different kinds of fruit in Panama. You can buy juice made from passionfruit, oranges, limes, tamarind, pineapple, or any combination thereof in stores or from almost any restaurant. Other common Panamanian foods are bollos, which are a variation of a tamale typically made with corn, butter, and sugar; and empanadas. There are little street carts all over the city and dotted along almost every street in the country (that might be a little bit of an exaggeration but these street carts really are everywhere!) selling these snacks and juice very cheaply.
The only place to buy food in Gamboa (besides a resort) is the fonda, or food truck, which is open during the weekdays for breakfast and lunch to serve the canal workers and STRI scientists.
Not only is it great to try some authentic Panamanian cuisine, it’s also super cheap. I’m a vegetarian (although I’ve been eating fish recently, Panama is not the most vegetarian friendly place and often there isn’t a veggie option) so I usually just order the sides – rice, beans or lentils, a salad, and sometimes a fried sweet plantain – all for $2.50!
Bleak grocery situation in Gamboa
Since Gamboa is very isolated, we have to drive into the city to go to a grocery store. Typically, we’ve been going every two weeks. As someone who loves fresh produce and cooking, this has been especially painful for me and I’m definitely looking forward to having a grocery store right up the street when I’m back in Boston! I was initially really surprised to find a lot of brands that I recognized in the store – a lot of food is imported from the US. However, these are usually more expensive than other options, so I’ve been testing out some of the local brands instead. I’ve also been trying to use what’s available, so I’ve been making a lot of plantains (they’re everywhere!), rice, and beans (I’ve never made dried beans before, but that’s very common here so I’ve been experimenting with that) with avocado – the kind that’s available here is much larger, sweeter, and juicier than the hass avocados that I’m used to.
I’ve also been making arepas, which are like a thick fried tortilla made from corn flour that can be topped or stuffed with any variety of meat or veggies that you desire. They’re traditionally from Colombia and Venezuela but are also common in Panama, like this delicious arepa topped with veggies that I tried!
Another surprise was the disappointing selection of produce in the grocery store. I was envisioning a huge variety of new kinds of local fruits and veggies, but almost everything in large grocery stores is imported. Luckily, there’s a large produce street market in the city that’s great if you don’t mind venturing into a decidedly less posh area of the city and overlooking the questionable cleanliness of the street and the stalls – the produce is all from Panama and perfectly delicious after a good wash! Also, there is a woman in Gamboa who visits a farm nearby every week or two and brings back deliveries that Gambodians can purchase from her house.
When I go home, I’m definitely going to miss the plethora of delicious fresh fruit available here – passionfruit, papaya, mangos, bananas, and pineapple, oh my! But it’s neat learning about new dishes and picking up cooking pointers from people I’ve met here who are from all over the world… I definitely have expanded my cooking repertoire and I’m looking forward to making some new things for friends when I get back!