EDITOR’S NOTE: Traveleater Belen Gutierrez – a Panamanian food expert from Panama City – shares with us 20 traditional dishes you need to try on your next trip to Panama.
Panama is known mostly for its idyllic beaches, its tropical forests, biodiversity, and of course, the Panama Canal. But one of the things visitors should look forward to the most is Panamanian food.
Today, we’ll be telling you a little about the local gastronomy and the delicious Panamanian foods you have to try to fully immerse yourself in the country’s culture. Panamanian food has been known to cause excessive drooling so don’t say we didn’t warn you!
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Photo by Fanfo
WHAT IS TRADITIONAL PANAMANIAN CUISINE?
Panamanian cuisine consists of many traditional dishes that are at the heart of the majority of its holidays. From birthdays to bachelor parties, Panamanians have a dish for every special occasion.
With a varied cuisine that’s based chiefly on grains like wheat and corn, a wide variety of vegetables, spices, and different types of meat, it isn’t hard to understand why Panama was nicknamed “the Hub of the Americas.”
Panamanian food culture is nuanced and complex. From a young age, the country became the epicenter of trade in Latin America with the construction and implementation of the Ferrocarril de Panamá (Panama Canal Railway). Following this, the building of the Panama Canal brought together people from different parts of the world. In turn, they brought with them their traditions, cultural backgrounds, and of course, their recipes.
From Herrera to Veraguas, Colon, Bocas del Toro, and Chiriqui, each province will treat Traveleaters to a different gastronomic experience. Each dish tells a different story and invites you to get lost in the flavors and aromas that make Panamanian gastronomy what it is today.
Once you get a taste of the many delicious Panamanian foods on this list, you’ll definitely want to come back. Wherever you go, expect to try dishes that are grilled by hand over a wood fire, stewed, baked, and above all, fried.
MUST-TRY PANAMANIAN FOODS
Here’s a list of twenty Panamanian foods that will make you feel less like a tourist and more like a local. For your convenience, we’ve organized it by category to make it easier to digest. Click on a link to jump to any section of the guide.
STARTERS / SIDES
A popular street food dish in many Latin American countries, Panamanian empanadas come in two presentations. They can be made with either wheat or corn flour, and they’re typically stuffed with ground meat (or shredded chicken) and vegetables. Sometimes, they can be stuffed with sweet fillings like fruit jam and dulce de leche.
One of the most ubiquitous Panamanian foods, you can think of empanadas as the staple finger food of traditional Panamanian celebrations and carnivals, like Desfile de las Mil Polleras (1000 Polleras Parade).
2. Carimañolas de Carne
Similar to empanadas, this is another popular finger food in Panamanian cuisine. Made from cassava – a commonly used root vegetable produced locally in Darién, Chiriqui, Herrera, and Veraguas – the flour is kneaded and then filled with pre-cooked ground meat before being deep-fried.
If you go to Panama and don’t try carimañolas de carne, then you’ll definitely be missing out!
3. Tamales Panameños
Like many other Latin American countries, the tamal is a landmark dish in Panamanian cuisine. It’s made from corn flour and is usually prepared with different types of meat like pork, ground beef, or chicken.
This is one of the few traditional Panamanian foods that’s boiled instead of fried. A must during Christmas and New Year’s holiday celebrations, its presentation makes it look like a “mini pie” full of Panamanian deliciousness.
4. Yuca Frita
As I mentioned at the start of this article, carbohydrate-rich foods like cassava are the cornerstone of Panamanian cuisine. Cassava can be used to make Panamanian dishes like carimañolas, but they can also be fried and eaten as is.
Like a Panamanian version of french fries, yuca frita is usually served as a side dish, often for breakfast with sausages. People who like fried finger foods really need to try this dish.
When it comes to popular Panamanian food, a handful of dishes sit at the top of the mountain. Patacones or deep-fried plantains are one of them.
Patacones are among the most recognized dishes in Panama and throughout Latin America. They’re made from green plantains that are sliced into pieces before being smashed and fried. No words can adequately describe how important patacones are to Panamanian cuisine. In my opinion, you can’t say that you’ve truly experienced Panamanian cuisine without trying patacones.
This side dish can be found in many Latin American countries. Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Guatemala are all big plantain producers. It makes a great addition to many tropical Panamanian dishes like fried fish, though you can find patacones pretty much anywhere in the country.
A representative dish of Dolega District in Chiriquí province, this Panamanian dish is famous for its crunchiness and how easy it is to prepare it.
Almojábanos are made from milled corn combined with a local white cheese called cuajada cheese. It’s shaped like an “S” – to mimic the shape of Panama – and is commonly eaten throughout the day. It’s one of those interesting flavor pairings that you can taste only in Latin American countries like Panama.
Almojábanos and almojábanas are consumed throughout Latin America but only in Panama is a four-day festival held in its honor. Every January, thousands of Panamanians flock to Dolega to partake in the festivities and celebrate this tasty Panamanian dish.
Try almojábanos and you’ll be amazed to find that you can do just about anything with corn. Almojábanos, white cheese, and freshly brewed coffee. Try and name a better Panamanian breakfast trio…I’ll wait!
Associated with the Quechua tribe, ceviche is a Latin American dish that has existed in the region since before colonization. Originally called siwichi by the Quechuas, ceviche can take many forms and flavors depending on where it’s from.
Even though this is a landmark dish in Peruvian cuisine, Panamanians prepare it with their own signature twist. Panamanian versions are usually made with lots of lemon, chopped onion, cilantro, and salt. The trick to making good ceviche is easy – the simpler, the better!
Since the main ingredient is just raw fish and seafood, you’ll find a wide variety of ceviche in Panama. Corvina, octopus, and shrimp are the most commonly used ingredients in Panamanian ceviche.
When in Panama City, I suggest enjoying your ceviche with cold local beer at the Amador Causeway. A road and green space that extends 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) into the Pacific Ocean, it connects the mainland with Naos, Perico, and Flamenco and offers spectacular views of the Panamanian sunset.
8. Sancocho de Gallina
Tradition. Culture. Heritage. Legacy. Those are just a few of the words that come to mind when you think of this Panamanian chicken stew called sancocho de gallina. Widely considered to be the national dish of Panama, this traditional dish sits at the top of the cultural hierarchy for the majority of Panamanians.
Sancocho de gallina is a staple dish at every Panamanian celebration. Made with spices and a variety of vegetables like cassava, yam, carrot, and corn, the chicken is cooked at very high temperatures in a traditional Panamanian method of food preparation called fogón.
Simply put, no list of the tastiest Panamanian foods can ever be complete without sancocho de gallina. Try it with a bowl of white rice and fried sweet plantains. Comforting and delicious, it will change your life if you let it.
9. Sopa de Pata
You can think of sopa de pata or cow’s feet soup as sancocho’s cousin, but with a bigger personality. Made with a variety of vegetables, herbs, and spices, it’s a rejuvenating dish that’s every bit as delicious as it is nourishing.
Unlike sancocho that’s made with a thinner broth, the collagen in the cow’s feet gives this soup a thicker consistency and a meatier flavor. It’s typically enjoyed at big family gatherings or eaten as hangover food the day after a drunk night out.
10. Carne Entomatada
This next dish is the perfect way to enjoy a lazy Sunday in Panama. Wear a pair of comfortable walking shoes and explore the city on foot. Enjoy the sights and sounds of Panama before stopping and having lunch at one of the many local restaurants that serve carne entomatada.
Carne entomatada refers to a type of Panamanian beef stew served in tomato sauce. It’s made with ground beef (or pork) stewed with tomatoes, vegetables, Worcestershire sauce, herbs, and spices. The stew is simmered and allowed to thicken before being served with a side of white rice.
Simple but comforting and delicious, it’s the perfect Sunday dish in Panama!
11. Arroz con Pollo
Like sancocho de gallina, arroz con pollo is one of the most culturally important Panamanian foods. You can find this dish everywhere in Panama – at birthdays, celebrations, anniversaries, and sometimes even funerals. It’s one of those dishes that brings people together.
Even though its literal English translation is “rice with chicken”, arroz con pollo is so much more than that. The combination of spices, herbs, finely chopped vegetables, chicken, and achiote (the secret ingredient that gives this dish its yellow-ish color) tells the story of a long line of Panamanian grandmothers who’ve passed down the recipe through countless generations.
Comforting and super delicious, it’s often served with side dishes like patacones or potato salad. You’ll definitely miss out if you don’t try this dish in Panama!
12. Arroz con Camarones y Coco
You’ll find a good amount of African and Caribbean influences in Panamanian dishes like arroz con camarones y coco. A staple tropical dish, it’s made with rice, shrimp, and coconut milk flavored with various herbs, spices, and even white vinegar.
If you visit Colon province, then you’ll undoubtedly hear the story of our ancestors who traveled to the region to build the Panama Canal. And if you try this dish, you might consider yourself part of that story, because you are.
You’ll essentially be eating the same dish that many Caribbean immigrants did on their lunch break. If that’s not a culturally immersive experience, then I don’t know what is!
13. Ropa Vieja
Ropa vieja is a Panamanian meat dish made with shredded beef stew and vegetables. Its name literally translates to “old clothes”, due to the shredded beef looking like a pile of old clothes when plated. But don’t let its unappetizing name fool you, ropa vieja is delicious.
Ropa vieja is mainly prepared in the provinces farther away from the coast, like Herrera, Los Santos, and Coclé. It’s best served with rice or a side dish of freshly fried patacones or yuca fritters.
There are many popular Panamanian restaurants in Panama City where you’ll find excellent versions of this classic Panamanian dish, like Sabroso Panamá or El Trapiche. Make sure to visit them and let us know what you think!
14. Chuletas en Salsa de Piña
Personally, I prefer ropa vieja over chuletas en salsa de piña, but people with a fondness for pork and pineapples will definitely want to try this dish.
A delectable combination of savory and sweet, chuletas en salsa de piña are pork chops served with pineapple sauce. It’s a tasty dish that pairs beautifully with white rice or patacones.
15. Pernil de Puerco al Horno
A staple dish to celebrate Christmas and the New Year in Panama, pernil de puerco al horno refers to pork leg seasoned with different ingredients like garlic, onions, vinegar, orange juice, herbs, and spices. The meat is baked slowly at a low temperature, causing the meat to become incredibly tender and juicy.
DESSERTS / DRINKS
16. Ron Ponche
If you’re in the mood for a sweet and fun drink, then ron ponche (aka Panamanian eggnog) is the way to go. This delicious dessert drink combines rum, evaporated milk, regular milk, eggs, and other ingredients to make a traditional drink that’s hard to resist during the holiday season.
If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a holiday party in Panama, then chances are, ron ponche will be there.
You can think of raspados as one of the landmark desserts of Panama. Whether you’re spending an afternoon exploring Casco Viejo or enjoying the annual Independence Day parade (or any parade for that matter), you’ll undoubtedly find vendors ready to turn large blocks of ice into this delicious shaved ice dessert called raspado.
Made from shaved ice, an artificial sweetener of your choice (please go with strawberry!), condensed milk, and milkshake powder, raspados are the perfect foil to sweltering hot days in Panama.
I may be biased, but in my opinion, raspados and hojaldras (fried bread) sprinkled with sugar are the best sweet treats in the world.
18. Pesada de Nance
This traditional Panamanian corn flour dessert has a lot of history. Recipes for pesada de nance have been handed down from generation to generation (and across provinces), though these recipes have remained largely untouched to preserve the flavors as they were originally intended.
This dessert was born in the central provinces of Panama and is made from nance fruit (originally from Mexico), corn, brown sugar, cinnamon, milk, white cheese, and other ingredients. The nance fruit gives the dessert a thick consistency and a rich, nuanced flavor.
You’ll find pesada de nance on the dessert menu of virtually every traditional Panamanian restaurant.
Chicheme is one of the most popular drinks among Panamanian children. It’s a drink that many adults remember fondly. They pass down the recipe for chicheme to their kids, nieces, and nephews to teach them that nothing tastes better than home.
Chicheme is made from broken corn kernels, cinnamon, sugar, vanilla extract, and other ingredients. After boiling the corn and adding condensed milk and cinnamon, you’ll get a tasty drink that’s just as delicious when served hot or cold.
20. Chicha de Saril
The last entry in this Panamanian food guide is another holiday classic – chicha de saril. It’s a festive tropical drink that combines the flavors of roselle flowers (flor de jamaica), ginger, and sugar.
Chicha de saril is typically served cold. Like many of the drinks on this list, it brings people together and is usually enjoyed in the company of family and friends over the holidays.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON TRADITIONAL PANAMANIAN FOOD
We hope you try as many of these Panamanian foods as you can when you visit Panama. In our opinion, trying the local cuisine is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in any culture.
In Panama, you’ll have an endless variety of delicious dishes to choose from. Panamanian food is known for its spectrum of flavors that’s as broad and diverse as the country itself.
Do let us know which Panamanian dish was your favorite!
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Cover photo by Fanfo. Stock images via Shutterstock.