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Are You Coming to Eat?

Despite the city’s boundlessly creative gastronomy and its potential for growth, only recently has Panama begun to project itself as an attractive gourmet destination. The municipality is counting on its gastronomic value to sustain urban development and bolster tourism.

By Lázaro I. Rodríguez Oliva
Photos: Javier A. Pinzón

There’s a noise in the kitchen and it seems to be coming from the stove. Panama City has become a gourmet destination thanks to its long history of biodiversity and intercultural cross-fertilization.

The formation of the Isthmus of Panama about three million years ago changed the very nature of the planet by separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The country’s geography makes each of its tropical marine and terrestrial ecosystems a natural laboratory. Add to this pantry of natural ingredients five hundred years of human migration and the resulting cultural expressions, the recipes of nostalgic folk passing through, and the reinvention of traditional dishes from other regions using the ingredients at hand.

It is difficult to say exactly which cross-cultural dialogues in Panama’s history influenced the country’s cuisine: ingredients from Mesoamerica and South America were transported along the indigenous trails joining the two oceans and later discovered by European explorers; the country is home to the major colonial trade routes along which gold and silver traveled from South America to Europe; the first trans-isthmian railroad in the nineteenth century was constructed here, followed by the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century; and then there was also the presence of the Canal’s North American administrators during a period of nearly one hundred years.

What’s new in the kitchen?

Panamanian stoves are busy slowly cooking up a mixture of tradition and a desire for change. At the heart of this transformation is an intergenerational dialogue between chefs from Panama and around the world. Well-known cook Cuquita Arias, whose mother was an immigrant, puts an intercultural spin on traditional dishes, inspired by her Afro-Panamanian heritage. Her book, Panama Chombo Style, won the Gourmand Award for Best African Cookbook published outside Africa.

If you’d like to taste some of these recipes, or if you’re crazy about desserts, visit Cuquita Cookita, her restaurant in Obarrio (Calle 58 este, Abel Bravo) and try the Sopa de Gloria, a traditional country dessert served during the month of November. Cuquita is among the guest experts who will be at the 2nd International Pastry Forum, held in Panama November 13-15. This incredible pastry festival, organized by Elena Hernández, will take place this year at the Hotel Central in the Casco Antiguo.

And while we’re on the subject of intercultural dialogue, although hard to believe, it is practically impossible to find traditional food from the native peoples of Panama in the nation’s capital, despite the fact that they account for 10% of the population and, according to the local Kunas, they are the city’s best chefs. There does seem to be some interest in roots cooking, however. Charlie Collins, another authority on Panamanian cuisine, found inspiration in the Wounaan culture and published T’ach (“food” in the Wounaan language) as a tribute to invisible cuisines in these times of globalized fast food.

Chef Collins cooks out of the city, at the Hotel Panamonte in Boquete (Chiriquí), but he sells products in San Francisco (Calle 67 Este), including a spicy mustard sauce that is the talk of the town.

And if you’re interested in regional cultural products, you won’t want to miss out on Sistá House’s chombo chili sauce (Calle 68 in San Francisco). Buy some to take home, but make sure you also try it on the puff pastries prepared there by young Panamanian Afro-descendant cook Isaac Villaverde, leader of the Afro-millennial movement. Avi Barak’s kosher cuisine reflects the city’s multi-ethnic composition, mixing traditional techniques with innovative Panamanian ingredients. This Panama-based Israeli chef serves his food at Rimonim Artisan Deli.

In Panama, even the franchises have been “tropicalized.” International chain restaurants generally stick to standard menu items and leave little room for experimentation, but at Segundo Muelle –a chain of Peruvian restaurants with branches in six countries, including Panama– the dialogue between Peruvian gastronomy and Panamanian customs led Chef Choco to release his all-new Trio de Causas (potato starters), which features one Peruvian (potato-based), one Creole (sweet potato-based), and one Panamanian pixbae (peach palm-based) starter. Pixbae seems to be a favorite Panamanian fruit among the most daring chefs, who are intent on re-imagining it in all its forms.

And for those who wave the haute cuisine banner, know that the only Panamanian restaurant listed among the fifty best in Latin America is Maito in Coco del Mar. Maito is the engine behind a conglomerate of diverse restaurants designed by Mario Castrellón, including Botánica, Café Unidos (throughout the city), and Tacos La Neta in the Casco Antiguo, a Panamanian take on popular Mexican cuisine at more affordable prices. This November at Maito, the fourth house from the end of Calle 50, the recipe for suckling pig tamales is the best-kept secret among the most demanding foodies.

A new generation of young chefs with their own ideas has left us wondering what has become of Panama in all this, and who defines what “Panamanian” means. Carlos Alba (Chombolín) prepares chicharrones and red corn mousse at Intimate, his restaurant in San Francisco, as well as a lobster tostada with kimchi, a Korean side dish made from fermented green papaya. And speaking of fermented foods, there seems to be great interest in the new flavors derived from the incorporation of fermentation techniques and new ingredients.

The preparations of José Olmedo Carles of Donde José (Casco Antiguo) have remained a benchmark of quality among sophisticated palates. In search of wider adventures, Carles reinvented himself with Lo Que Hay (It Is What It Is), a restaurant in the Casco with a name that hints at the fact that one never knows for sure what they’ll be serving. Carles sees his kitchen as a laboratory and seems to agree with his colleague Hernán Correa, whose daily exploration of markets and the Panamanian countryside has restored the value of local ingredients and flavors, while maintaining constantly surprising haute cuisine standards.

This vision of rural Panama and its farmers has made it to the most recognized foodie forum of all: the Buen Tenedor Awards organized by Jorge Chanis, a blogger for El Buen Diente. Fresh products are featured in daring dishes such as those prepared by Francisco Castro, by request, at Costa del Este: Mercao Emotions, a gastronomic journey inside Castro’s restaurant Mercao, connects advanced digital technologies to the traditional methods of local cooking. “From garden to table” seems to be the motto of restaurants like Manolo Caracol, in the Casco Antiguo, where “cocina país” (country cooking) is characterized by fresh innovations and guaranteed traceability.

And if it’s local flavor you’re after, El Trapiche is another Panamanian gourmet standard, among the country’s best-known traditional restaurants and a place you can trust to serve one of the best Panamanian sancochos ever.

For those who defend traditional cooking, across from Panama’s City Hall (Calle Cuba, Edificio Atillo) you’ll discover local flavors at the “Cuara y Cuara” food stalls, a street food institution with specialties ranging from seafood to creole dishes. And, elsewhere, in two different parts of the city, Sabores del Chorrillo and Vereda Afroantillana serve everything from soused pig’s trotters to Panamanian fried fish, which comes mostly from the fish market at the gates of the Casco Antiguo, where you’ll also find dozens of stalls and restaurants serving freshly prepared ceviche or seafood guacho, a delicious seafood and rice dish.

Panama City: A New Gourmet Destination?

Deeply embedded in the collective unconscious is the belief that Panama is visited only by people on business trips linked either to the canal or the financial center, those visiting the country’s many shopping centers, or travelers making flight connections through the Hub of the Americas. But statistics from the Tourism Authority of Panama prove otherwise: 71.8% of Panama’s visitors come for recreation and only 3.3% visit on business.

Despite the city’s boundlessly creative cuisine and its potential for growth, only recently has Panama begun to project itself as an attractive gourmet destination. The municipality is counting on its gastronomic value to sustain urban development.

The city has just applied for membership in UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network in the field of gastronomy. The Network is an initiative to promote cooperation between cities that place creativity at the center of their public policies. This new vision of gastronomy as part of the creative economy seems to include a much larger proposal for incorporating connections and channels to culture throughout the country. In 2019, Panama City will celebrate its five hundredth anniversary and it has been designated the Culture Capital of Ibero-America. The Chancellor’s Office has included “gastro-diplomacy” as part of its cultural diplomacy, as a means of promoting the nation’s culture.

The map of Panama’s creative gastronomy is about to be drafted, but maps of this nature are almost always personal so it’s best to come taste for yourself: explore the food trucks and local craft beers, enjoy the hamburger-themed weeks, the wines, the fairs, and the traditional cuisines from the country’s interior. Try out events such as Intestines-Only Night, featuring the most daring cooks and bullet-proof palates, the perennial Chinese breakfasts, the Greek joint that now plays a part in at least one meal a day for most Panamanians, and the Italian, Spanish, Greek, Lebanese, Mexican, Venezuelan, and Colombian restaurants… So, are you coming to eat?