Panama is still a developing nation and much of its cuisine has yet to be codified instead being orally transmitted from generation to generation. Many of the ingredients used here do not travel well and are used only because they exist in a subsistence agricultural universe. It is my intent to polish the repertoire of local dishes using a wider worldlier larder. Many of the “national” dishes regularly only grace the tables of the economically challenged while the more affluent only consume them as culinary tokens at celebrations and rituals.
Panama’s bicoastal typography means that its aquatic pantry differs from one side of the isthmus to the other so ingredients of a like named recipe can differ greatly from ocean to ocean. A sizable African labor force that brought their culinary icons to New World plantations and inoculated Panama’s Atlantic coast replaced most of the indigenous people of the sparsely inhabited Caribbean islands, decimated by disease carrying Spaniards. The Pacific side derived its dietary inputs from the Spanish Viceroyalty in Peru and since transportation was haphazard, these influences are still present in today’s regional Panamian diet. I’m sure many Panamians will criticize my reconstruction of their favorites but they’ll get used to it just as the cooks from other cultures have, and I’m only trying to interpret the dishes from a more Northern/Global perspective. Panama’s population is only about 3 million while Los Angles has about 4 million; when was the last time you heard about Los Angles Cuisine. Therefore, I’m just trying to discover and report Panama’s culinary essence for posterity hopefully without being portentous.
Fourty percent of Panama’s population lives in poverty, on under $300 a month, and even those with a college degree usually begin their careers at $600 per month. Most of the foodstuffs and kitchen appliances we take for granted are out of reach for the average Panamian family. Refrigerators and ovens are highly prized possessions and the majority of the country does not roast meats or bake grain products. Commercial meats, virtually unrecognizable to anyone from the old country, are sold in slices, chunks to be be braised in stews, soups, or grilled over local charcoal or wood. Cooking is done on small two burner propane stoves much like we use for camping trips and the propane is subsidized by the government when it’s purchased in 25 pound tanks. This lack of kitchen technology, and dearth of protein, makes the “national” cuisine one of near subsistence forcing the population to embrace any indigenous tubers, roots, fruits, fish, rice or offal available. In the interior the locals still eat just about anything that provides sustenance even though the guidebooks advise gringos not to eat iguana, sloth, tapir, armadillo, monkeys and a lot of other SKU’s on the jungle super Mercado shelves. There’s a whole lot more to discuss and we’ll get around to it so thanks for visiting and please return when you get a chance.