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Panamanian Food. Fish, Meat, Plantains and Rice.

Green chile was a regular ingredient at breakfast growing up.   I think the only thing my father didn’t put it in were the pancakes, but I’m sure he wanted too.

Given that I grew up on spicy and have a very high tolerance.  That is why I’m surprised that bottle of hot sauce Maria Elena bought for me at the Mercado de Mariscos is still in my refrigerator.  Don’t get me wrong, I use it just about every day (pancakes included) but it is so freaking spicy I can’t do more than a few drips at a time.

The contents of that bottle however are not typical of Panamanian food, which tends to have just a nice touch of spice to it.  There isn’t much in Panama that will peel the skin off the inside of your mouth like that spice in my fridge does.

Which is actually pretty nice, to be honest.  All the taste and less of the pain.

Panamanian Food. A Melting Pot…of all that is good….

If you’re looking for an international melting pot, Panama is the place.  A city with a generally high standard of living for its nearly one million inhabitants and a construction boom that has changed the skyline dramatically in just a few years, Panama City has recently been called the Hong Kong of the Americas.

Panamanian food
Panama City is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Latin America.

A walk around Panama City will put you in touch with people from pretty much any place you can think of.  Thai, French, Japanese, Colombian, Chinese, American and French restaurants can be found with ease.  Then there are the regional foods from within Panama that reflect the mix of Spanish, indigenous and Afro-Caribbean traditions that have local fish, fruits and vegetables naturally built into the cuisine.

Here are a few of my favorite “indigenous” Panamanian dishes.


The word “Panama” supposedly comes from an indigenous word meaning “abundance of fish” and there is indeed fish everywhere to be eaten.  It is hard to go through the day without some sassy ceviche but my favorite fish was the corvina, a sea bass that can be ordered fried, grilled, with a spicy garlic sauce (al ajillo) or sautéed with tomatoes, onions and bell pepper (a la española).

Panamanian food
Grilled corvina, or sea bass, with arroz con coco on Isla Grande

Arroz con Coco

Coconut rice is fragrant, slightly sweet rice that goes perfectly with Panama’s seafood.  It is pretty basic; all you need is coconut milk, sugar and white rice.  In Colombia they often put raisins in it. I’m deeply anti-cooked raisins so I skip that. Use one can of coconut milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon of sugar for every cup of rice.  Boil the milk, stir in the rice and cook at a low temperature covered for 15-20 minutes.  Perfect with the fish.

Panamanian Food
Corvina al ajillo with arroz con coco. Giant Russian and Ukrainian ships fishing just outside Panama’s territorial waters are often implicated in overfishing Panama’s waters. Sadly, most of those ships are actually registered in Panama.

~ ~ ~

Panamanian food
Squid, when cooked in its ink, has an intense seafood flavor. For this dish garlic, tomatoes and bell pepper were added to the inky squid.


Supposedly, sancocho is the thing after a big night out.  Sancocho is a simple stew made with chicken, yuca root, cilantro, oregano and onion.  There are many variations on this emblematic Panamanian food but try this recipie. I liked it.  While the sancocho is cooking try munching on some of these empanadas…..

Panamanian food
We found these empanadas on the Caribbean coast. The flour for empanadas is typically made from corn. Then they are stuffed with cheese and/or chicken or another meat.


Plantains are most often served as patacones, a much improved replacement for French fries.  This dish is made from unripe plantains cut into rounds, pounded flat with a tostonera, a utensil made specifically for the purpose.  Then the plantains are fried crisp and golden brown and salted. Not being a ketchup fan, I smothered these babies with whatever hot sauce I could find.

Panamanian food
Patacones and ketchup. Plantains are also served lightly caramelized with sugar and cinnamon and known as plátanos en tentación. Ripe plantains are also often broiled or sautéed in oil.

Ropa Vieja

Yup. That’s right “old clothes. This dish originated in the Canary Islands, the last place Spanish ships would stop on the way to the Caribbean and the first place they stopped on their return to Spain. Ropa Vieja is made of slow-cooked shredded beef in a spicy tomato sauce.  It is typically served over rice. Try this recipe.


Coffee.  Well.  Coffee.  Awesome Coffee.

Panamanian Food
Panamanian coffee is just plain good. It’s the perfect way to start the day. Breakfast tends toward eggs, toast, tropical fruits and a hojaldra, a deep-fried bread lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar. On the Caribbean coast breakfast is often rice, beans and greasy pork. It is quite a lovely way to stop your heart.

Of course any of this Panamanian food (save the coffee) pairs perfectly with a nice cold Balboa beer. Or an Atlas, Panamá, Soberana or Cristal. Lots of beers to choose from in Panama.  Don’t drink unless very cold!   Or, if you’re curious Panamanian food also goes nicely with some of the yummy new microbrews popping up around Panama City.  La Rana Dorada is definately worth a try.

Panamanian food is simple, light and an easy way to open the door to Panama’s history as a world crossroads.





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