Local Food in Panama: A Global Rainbow

  • Mathilde Grand
  • 12 March 2013

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.

Panama's rosca de Navidad

Panama's version of the holiday bread rosca de Navidad was influenced by Sephardic Jews. Photo courtesy of Patricia Miranda Allen

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.

Panama's rondon de pollo

Panama's rondon de pollo is a brilliant coconut twist on French bouillabaisse, served with local cassava. Photo courtesy of Mathilde Grand

French Flair

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.

Afro-Antilles kitchen workers during the Panama Canal

Afro-Antilles kitchen workers during the Panama Canal's construction in 1908. Courtesy of the Afro-Antilles Museum of Panama's archives

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.

Panama's rambutan, called "Monom-Chino"

The Chinese introduced the rambutan to Panama, where it is called "Monom-Chino." Photo courtesy of wikimedia/fotokannan

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!

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Mathilde Grand

Mathilde Grand is the founder and administrator of Citizens of Chocolate, a collective dedicated to the manufacture of chocolate by indigenous women in Panama. She is also the chef-owner at Starfish Coffee, a catering service that works alongside the rainforest's inhabitants with produce from the jungle.
Mathilde Grand
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Central America, food & drink, local knowledge, North America, Panama, personal experience, whl.travel,

One Response to “Local Food in Panama: A Global Rainbow”

  1. John Devid says:

    Great Post…
    Thanks Grand for sharing the story of local food in Panama..

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