Panamanian cuisine is a reflection of the historical influences of several ethnic groups: Spanish, African, Amerindian (indigenous to Panama), and Afro-Antillean, among others. Kosher restaurants and burger joints are further examples of the infusion that defines Panama’s constant cultural exchange.
Most mainstream food found in Panama can be classified and self-identifies as comida criolla, a cuisine created by European (mostly Spanish) colonists fusing their traditional recipes with native Caribbean foods and cooking styles. Rice, from drinks to dessert to side-dishes, is a staple. Chicken, beef and fish, plantains and corn are consistent in Panama’s dietary staples. Soups are popular, primarily the national dish of sancocho, a chicken and rice soup.
Breakfast in cafés typically provide fried treats of corn, meat and bread, accompanied by cheese, fresh orange juice and coffee. Meat and fish, rice with coconut, vegetables and soup are basics found in restaurants for lunch, followed by dessert. Mid-afternoon snacks of fresh fruit-flavored ice cream or a trip to a bakery to get fresh baked goods and national coffee is common. Restaurants for dinner have a variety of options, from Lebanese to Greek to Italian, although Panamanians typically eat at home and lighter on the weekdays and enjoy restaurants on the weekends.
Fruits and vegetables indigenous to the area (aka organically grown) are widespread, normally consumed as juices or in-house snacks by Panamanians, but completely accessible to those who want to enjoy the fresh tastes of papaya, banana, orange, pineapple, watermelon, passion fruit and more. Juices and shakes can be prepared on the spot at most restaurants, and drive-thru ice cream and juice joints like the chain La Casa de Frutas, Jugos y Helados, found in Panama City, will entice your taste buds after you try a fruit-flavored popsicle. Root vegetables like yuca and yams (ñame) are staples, and beets, potatoes, corn and squash also frequently make their way to the table.
Below find samplings of Panama’s recipes that you’ll be sure to try:
Sancocho (Panama’s Chicken Soup)
Soup in hot weather? Many people think the two don’t go together, but this national dish is something that you’ll end up craving. Made with chicken, ñame (yam), corn on the cob, culantro (the Caribbean cilantro), onion, garlic, oregano, and the regional optional addition of yuca and squash, sancocho de gallina (commonly referred to as sancocho) is served hot with a side of white rice, intended to be dumped in the bowl and eaten with each bite. The soup is typically eaten for weekend brunch, lunch or dinner, as a side, at home and in restaurants. Panamanian families gather during holidays and prepare sancocho in large pots cooked outdoors and enjoy music, drinks, other foods and each other’s company. Carnavales and Fiestas Patrias, among many other holidays, call for the staple roadside stands to be set up for all to enjoy this signature dish at any time of day, although late-night is popular: sancocho is known among locals for its hangover and anti-hangover properties.
Patacones (Fried Green Plantains)
Would you like a side of…patacones? Patacones (pronounced pah-tah-cone-ays) are a staple to any plate of meat, fish, seafood and sandwich as much as (if not more) than french fries and potato chips in any deli or to-go meal. Also served as an appetizer, these fried and mashed green plantains are typically served warm with salt and ketchup, eaten both at home as a snack as well as in restaurants. With an optional topping of cheese (preferably queso blanco) and steak, this snack and accompaniment is both easy to make, filling and incredibly tasty.
- 2 unripe plantains (green)
- vegetable oil
1. Cut plantain peel lengthwise with a small, sharp knife along the edges of the peel. Remove peel completely.
2. Cut plantains crosswise in 1” thick pieces.
3. Heat oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add enough oil to cover completely the plantains and wait until oil sizzles once a drop of water is added to ensure it is hot enough.
4. Add plantains, avoiding overcrowding and turning occasionally until golden in color (5 minutes).
5. Remove plantains from skillet, placing them on a plate covered in paper towels. Blot top side gently.
6. Take the bottom of a can or mason jar and gently smash the warm plantains until 1/4¨ thick.
7. Place plantains back in the warm oil until golden-brown (3 minutes).
8. Remove plantains from skillet, blot with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and serve with ketchup.
As Panama means “abundance of fish” there is no shortage of fresh fish in Panama. From corvina (white sea bass and the most popular type of ceviche) to octopus to shrimp, even chinitos (the surprisingly go-to convenience stores) have daily arrivals of fresh ceviche, commonly grabbed as a snack with soda crackers. Panama City’s Mercado de Mariscos (Fish Market) is a must-visit, located near the Presidential Palace in Casco Viejo. With fresh fish, you can replicate this Panamanian specialty in your own home until your next trip.
- 3-5 lbs white boneless fish fillet
- 3 white onions
- 1 red pepper
- 1 green pepper
- 2 stalks of celery
- 2 c lime juice
- aji chombo
1. Cut fresh fish into 1/4¨cubes.
2. Soak fish cubes in lightly salted water for 1 hour. Drain well.
3. Dice garlic, aji chombo, culantro, onion, peppers and celery and add to a large glass bowl.
4. Add fish, salt and top with lime juice. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours .
Serve with crackers, patacones, chips or in a bed of lettuce.
Chicha de arroz con piña (Rice & Pineapple Juice)
Chicha in Panama refers to any type of juice: chicha de papaya (papaya juice), chicha de maracuyá (passion fruit juice), etc. Chicha de arroz con piña is one of Panama’s most traditional drinks, served from roadside stands to popular restaurant chains like Niko’s Café to your fridge at home. Made with rice, pineapple rinds, milk, sugar and cinnamon, this refreshing drink is widely celebrated and lets you do something resourceful with those pineapple rinds.
- milk (cow, soy, rice- the choice is yours)
- white rice
- 1 pineapple (you only need the rinds)
1. Cut pineapple rinds into 1¨ squares. Add rinds to a pot with 1-2 cups of rice and cinnamon and cover with water. Boil until rice is soft, stirring occasionally.
2. Blend pot contents to blender, adding about 1 c of water until mixture is smooth.
3. Strain with a colander, using the back of a spoon to stir through the mixture.
4. Add sugar and milk to taste and blend again to make a puree. Serve over ice and add cinnamon and vanilla to taste if desired.
Arroz con Leche (Rice Pudding)
Found in nearly every part of the world, arroz con leche is also popular in Panama. A common dessert menu item in restaurants and cafés, it is also easy to make at home.
- 1 cup of rice
- 1 cup of milk or condensed milk
- 1 tsp vanilla
- ½ tsp salt
- Cinnamon stick
- Cinnamon powder
- Sugar (to taste)
- Raisins (optional)
1. Wash rice and let it soak overnight. Rinse well and cook as normal, draining any remaining water.
2. Add milk, vanilla, cinnamon stick and salt (sugar if desired) to the rice in a small pot.
3. Place small pot in a medium pot filled with water on medium heat. (Use a double saucepan if available).
4. After mixture is almost dry, serve warm and top with cinnamon powder and raisins.