In Havana I joined a group of carpenters, plumbers and electricians for a game of…
Everyone was yelling.
You notice all the shouting about the same time the fetid reek of salt, tin, ammonia and decay smacks you in the nose.
“¡Permiso! ¡Permiso! ¡Cuidado!”
A short man in a mustache and green apron pushed past me with a dolly overloaded with ice. His rubber boots splashed in a puddle, spraying my feet with some very cold, slimy and fishy water. He rushed off down one of the aisles crying out and laughing outrageously right and left.
There were more mongers than tourists. Everyone was sweating.
Nearly as loud as the yelling were the piercing whacks and chops echoing through the hall. It was the sound of metal hitting metal, of metal hitting wood and of something getting beat and squished. Maybe. I wasn’t sure but it was a fairly disconcerting sound.
When I asked the lady selling ceviche if I could buy a cup of the raw fish and onions bathed in lime and salt she scowled at me. I smiled. She scowled deeper.
“If she were Colombian, she’d smile,” my friend Maria said. “We Panamanians aren’t exactly known for good service.”
“¡Permiso! ¡Permiso! ¡Cuidado!” The ice guy shouted on the return. He bumped into me again and disappeared into the bright heat outside.
Ok. So the fish market was not the place to go for kindly service or clean shoes. But ambiance? Oh yes. El Mercado de Mariscos is all ambiance.
~ ~ ~
The fish market is located in a large white and light blue building topped with the Panamanian and Japanese flag at the very entrance to Casco Viejo. The Casco hangs over the Pacific Ocean on the western tip of Panama City. It is where the Spaniards moved the city after Henry Morgan sacked the original settlement. The World Heritage site has a confused and world-weary feel despite the aggressive redevelopment attempting to scour it into the First World.
The inner harbor was hot and humid and stuffed with an extremely diverse collection of small fishing boats unloading crates of fish amongst crowds of workers. There were ponderous Brown pelicans, and Sandwich terns that exploded into the water as they dove for lunch.
I was fortunate enough to come to the fish market in the company of fellow foodie and blogger El Maridaje, his lovely assistant Heidy and my very lovely host Maria Elena. Between the three of them I got more food culture than my little brain could soak in. These ocean-fish experiences are fascinating to me being the mountain desert-boy that I am.
And of course, there is always that eternal Jim O’Donnell question to be asked and answered…what will this do to my intestines?
~ ~ ~
Up and down the aisles were stalls of fishmongers. The stalls were topped with colorful and religious signs naming their business and/or covered in stickers of their favorite football clubs. Signs like:
Benedicion de Dios
JesusCristo Team A
A Malo Tu Tambien
Below their signs the mongers were busy filleting or hacking at fish with machetes and enormous knives. There were shrimp, lobster, octopus, clams, squids, fish and a whole slew of other fresh seafood. They displayed their fish in a variety of ways. Several sported confused piles of unsorted catch layered in dripping ice. Others had metal tins piled in octopus. Others had their product neatly divided, each type in separate containers. Those stalls tended to be cleaner in general and the ice was replaced much more often – and they didn’t stink either.
Evidently, the cleanliness could be a fish-bone of contention. One large lady with a cherubic face (and somehow carrying the largest set of breasts I’d ever seen) had an incredibly neat stall. She wore a hair net and kept meticulous notes of her sales.
The woman ran a brisk business selling all sorts of shrimp and chopped octopus. Three stalls down a cranky, lamb-chopped man shouted out that she was only doing such a good business because she had sex with her customers. She shouted back and then turned her back to him and giggled. At first I thought it was some good-natured ribbing. After some more shouting back and forth I realized this was an actual spat.
The man was jealous and pissed.
“People come to me because my product is fresh. His is not,” she told me when I looked at her. She shrugged and smiled.
That was that. She wasn’t worried.
~ ~ ~
“How can you tell which is the freshest?” I asked another monger, an over-sized balding man with a stand nearly as clean as the cherub.
“Well, most of us will lie to you. No matter what anyone says, none of this came from the sea fifteen minutes ago. But really, look at the eyes of the fish. If the eyes are milky? Not good. If they smell like fish? Not good. If the meat is soft? Not good.”
~ ~ ~
Panama is rich in seafood.
The name “Panama” is supposedly derived from an Amerindian word meaning “an abundance of fish” or “the land of fish”.
The UNFAO says that 95 percent of the fishing activity in Panama takes place in the Pacific Ocean. The Gulf of Panama hosts an upwelling that, particularly in the dry season, attracts a tremendous number and diversity of marine species. It also attracts a huge number of foreign fishing vessels. In fact, the area of the Pacific Ocean near Panama is the second-most fished section of ocean in the world.
Consumption has skyrocketed in recent years from already high levels making Panama one of the biggest consumers of fish in Central America. A consumption has risen, abundance has declined and so Panamanian food culture is increasingly shifting to non-traditional and low-economic species.
In the past few years, Panama has taken some aggressive action to protect its fisheries. In 2010 President Martinellli banned large, destructive long-line vessels from operating within Panamanian waters. Further restriction on long-lining were implemented recently. A management plan for sport fishing is also now in place.
The typical catch varies through the year but several catches and the shrimp harvest in particular are limited to certain times a year to protect the population. This time is called the cuarentena.
~ ~ ~
“There is just no work at home,” a young man said to me.
When I asked him for a picture, he waved me off. When I tried to record our conversation he began to shuffle away. I put everything away.
He was from a Caribbean island country. “ I stay at home with my parents for half a year. They are both sick and I wan to be with them. But I can’t make, you know and I come here for six months to work. The economy here is much better. I can work the fishing boats and make enough in six month to live six months at home.”
~ ~ ~
We hit the ceviche “bars”.
Ceviche is, more or less, the Panamanian national dish. Typically, it is made with fresh chunks of raw fish marinated in with lemon or lime and onion and spiced with salt, coriander ají or chili peppers.
Typically. Because there is a wide variety.
The ceviche stalls were towards the front of the hall. The menus tended to be hand-written and, I swear to God, each and every last one of them had a child sitting on a stool in the back punching away at a smart-phone with tiny fingers. Everyone once in a while a man would pass behind the women selling and take a slug from a beer hidden away in a cooler.
Prices ranged from $1-$4.50.
First I tried the straight up ceviche de corvina. Sea bass. It was heavy on the onions but was quite good. There was no “fishy” taste. Next I went for the ceviches de langostinos. Shrimp.
I decided that, as with pretty much every food on the planet, it just isn’t quite good enough unless doused in habaneros.
Maria quickly turned up an un-labeled bottle of some non-descript orangish-yellow sauce that I spooned onto the langostinos.
“Sweet Jesus,” was all I could say. I gasped, wiped the tears from my cheeks and spooned on a bit more.
“I’ll get you another bottle to take home,” she said.
Historians agree that, more likely than not, ceviche originated in the area of Lima, Peru in the days of the Viceroyalty of Peru. Some suggest the origins had Amerindian roots. Others point to Moorish traditions as the source, given the number of Moorish women that came to Peru with the Spaniards. The origins of the word “ceviche” don’t offer many clues to the food’s origin given that it could have come from the Arabic word sakbaj or the Castilian word escabeche or the Quechuan word siwichi.
Regardless, from Lima, so the theory holds, the ceviche food tradition spread throughout the Spanish colonies adapting to local conditions and flavors over time.
One of the less surly ceviche peddlers explained that the Peruvians cut their fish in strips. The Panamanians cut them in cubes. The Peruvians serve their ceviche fresh. The Panamanians allow the fish to pickle for a few hours or even days. The Peruvians serve their ceviche with sweet potato. The Panamanians with various herbs. Another difference? A serving of Peruvian ceviche nearly killed me in Lima. The Panamanian ceviches left me wanting more.
Next up was the coctel de langostinos, basically shrimp ceviche smothered in ranch dressing. That one ended up in the trash.
Up to that point I’d been eating the ceviche with a plastic spoon. Another stall however served theirs with crackers. I ordered a “Mediterranean ceviche.” made with olives, herbs and some cream sauce. I shoveled that one in with the saltines.
By now my hosts were looking at me as if I were some sort of giant pig. So I went for the concha negra ceviche. Black clam.
It was more of a “watch this!” than anything else.
I was stuffed.