It is said that you can experience a culture through its food. This is no less true in Panama, where the local food, history and culture blend together. Any traveler that really wants to “go local” should start with a traditional Panamanian menu.
A Melting Pot of Foreign Flavours
Officially, Panama became the country it is today in 1903, when in seceded from Colombia and struck a deal for the United States to build a great canal through its pristine rainforest. As Panama is squeezed between two great oceans – the narrowest piece of land between them – it was perfect for “the Canal.” Food in Panama is directly connected to the history of the Canal.
Outside the indigenous people and the Spaniards, the first community to make a culinary mark on Panama was Sephardic Jews. They settled mostly as merchants during the railroad period that preceded the Canal. As they became “locals” themselves, their cooking practices were integrated with those of Panamanian cuisine. They made their own variation of the holiday bread rosca de Navidad and added their own ingredients to sancocho, a soup that displays the diversity of tastes in Panama and which is already a Latin version of the cholent brought by the first immigration of Crypto Jews during the conquest. Today sancocho has become a staple among Panamanian food traditions.
In the late 19th century, the French arrived, bringing with them their own culinary influences. The first groups were the pioneers involved in the construction of the Canal. They included a large number of former Afro-Antilles slaves. When the French lost the Canal concession and left, the French Afro-Antilles population stayed behind. As they assimilated, their food entered the culinary consciousness of the isthmus. The rondon de pollo is a brilliant coconut twist on the French bouillabaisse, served with cassava that is endemic to the American rainforest.
At about the same period of time, the Jamaicans started populating Panama to work on the banana plantations. The Jamaican food legacy in Panamanian cuisine is the introduction of curry and the local drink called chicha de saril or flor de Jamaica, a refreshing hibiscus-flower drink.
Gringo Zoner Barbecues
Exit the French and enter the Americans. Under the Theodore Roosevelt administration, the U.S. finished the Canal and stayed on to run its operations until 1999. These “gringos” became an unusual sort of locals called “los zoners.” For them, a weekend wasn’t a weekend in Panama without a beach or backyard barbecue. The rainforest and its delicacies were applied to this grilling tradition: glazed sauces are made with passion fruit or tamarind and cilantro. Barbecue vegetables typically include yucca, bell pepper and chayote. On the Isthmus, the uber-American food holiday of Thanksgiving is widely celebrated among the Panamanian upper class.
Asian Taste Sensations
At roughly the same time, the first wave of Chinese arrived in Panama. They were mostly shop owners selling all sorts of goods to the Canal’s construction workers. In many places worldwide, the Chinese have been known to have difficulty assimilating. Not the case in Panama. As the Chinese became Panamanian, fried rice was added as a national fixture in any popular fonda (eatery), restaurant and cafeteria.
Every year, Panamanians also look forward to ripe rambutans. Because the Chinese introduced this celebrated fruit to Panama, it is known locally as Momon-Chino. The beauty of visiting Panama is that the local experience is distinctly global. This tiny country is a wide open window to the world that will ultimately lead you to a rainbow of local food. Buen provecho!