By Manuel Rueda
Catholic News Service
PANAMA CITY (CNS) — With its strategic location between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Panama has long been a crossroads for travelers and goods from all over the world.
That means that the local food has picked up European, indigenous, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese and Arabic flavors and ingredients. As one local chef puts it, the country is a “gastronomic Babel.”
Here are some snacks and plates to try during your stay in Panama for World Youth Day in January:
Tortilla de Maiz — UFO-shaped patties made of fried corn dough. These are often served with breakfast and go down well with cream cheese. Do not confuse with the thinner Mexican tortilla.
Almojabanos — These spongy, S-shaped snacks are also made from corn, but the dough is mixed with salty white cheese. A good snack if you’re on the run.
Carimanolas — A round pie made from yucca flour, usually stuffed with ground beef. Hearty stuff to get your day started.
Sopa de Mariscos — Seafood soup cooked with local chili peppers in a very light broth. If you get it at the seafood market (see below) it comes in a small Styrofoam cup so you can take it with you. Squeeze some lemon into the soup to get the best flavor.
Ceviche — A marinated shrimp and fish dish popular in many Latin American countries. The Panamanian style of ceviche is somewhat spicy. This dish is served cold, so it’s great for the hot and humid weather.
Patacones — Mashed, deep-fried and crispy plantains that go great with a cup of ceviche. Because patacones are made with green plantains, they have a salty flavor.
Maduros — Another popular plantain side dish, but this one is rather sweet. Yellow plantains are fried or simply baked.
Shawarma — Marinated chicken or lamb slowly cooked on a spit, wrapped in pita bread, and stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, parsley and garlic sauce. A filling snack brought to Panama by Middle Eastern immigrants.
Raspao — Shaved ice topped with different kinds of fruit syrups and condensed milk. Refreshing and sweet. Raspao is sold mostly by street vendors who walk around with big blocks of ice.
Orejitas — Heart-shaped pastries, that are small, buttery and sweet. Part of the culinary footprint left by French immigrants in Panama.
Arroz Con Leche — Rice cooked slowly with milk, sugar and cinnamon and topped with raisins, coconut and even small chocolate sprinkles. A desert sold by restaurants and street vendors alike.
Here are some (affordable) places to eat:
Pio Pio — A fast food chain with red and yellow signs that can be found throughout Panama City. It offers fried chicken and burger meals but also local snacks like tortillas or carimanolas.
El Trapiche — Typical Panamanian dishes and a good selection of tropical fruit juices. Has locations on Via Argentina (financial district) and in Albrook Mall.
Restaurante Beirut — Tasty shawarmas and other Arab-Panamanian dishes. Located in the financial district.
Restaurante Jonathan — A no-frills, self-service eatery in the historic center; it combines hearty Panamanian specialties with Chinese food. Great value. Located on Avenida Central between 8th and 9th streets.
Mercado de Mariscos — Dozens of stands in this market cook fresh seafood specialties and compete for your business. You can try small dishes like seafood soup or ceviche and large fish dishes with sides of patacon. Located on Cinta Costera, about a five-minute drive from the historic center. Very affordable prices.
Sabores de Chorrillo — A food court that specializes in seafood, with a view of the sea. It’s located next to the Maracana soccer stadium.