Tourists often miss the culinary highlights in Panama, because of limited time or sometimes due to the language barrier. This article explores the food in Panama and guides you to eat like an expert expat.
I can safely say that nobody has immigrated to Panama for its food. Locals will counter this statement by saying that other countries have good food because they have little else to offer! Touché.
The foodies and health fanatics will find the food in Panama somewhere between bland and unhealthy. A typical meal contains a lot of starch, almost everything is fried and it lacks a spicy bite.
However, that is a generalisation. The food in Panama includes a number of dishes that are remarkable, and I have selected four recipes that are easy to prepare, yet over-the-top delicious.
Before we look at the dishes in detail, I want to point out a few peculiarities, as well as the challenges that expats face.
Coastal VS interior
Panama’s geographic location, as well as its geographic features, have a considerable influence on its food.
At or near the coast, you will find more dishes made with local seafood, coconut, and tropical fruits.
In the country’s interior, agriculture plays a major role in the daily lives of the communities. Therefore, they would be more likely to consume root vegetables, starchy fruits, meat (beef, chicken and pork) as well as rice and beans.
Biggest food challenges for expats
Language is probably the biggest contributor towards culture shock; it also makes grocery shopping a tedious affair. If you can speak Spanish, or know some of the regional brands, it is not too bad an experience. If not, buying food in Panama is daunting. You could easily find yourself staring at the shelves, wondering why you have not started those Spanish lessons months earlier.
You will have to adapt to the quality and taste of local brands. I am not suggesting that anything or everything local is of inferior quality, just saying it is of a different quality. With an accompanying different taste.
Where to find that ingredient will be on your mind until you have located all those speciality shops in and around your new home. Or, until you have found a local replacement. Or until you decide that life is good without it.
It is very common to see questions about where to find specific ingredients, on expat forums or groups. Soon enough you will be shopping like a boffin and eating like an expat expert.
Availability of international brands
All the popular international brands are readily available throughout Panama.
The first supermarket to find is El Rey, they are open 24/7 and the larger outlets have very good in-house pharmacies. El Rey is very well represented across Panama, but rural areas and Bocas del Toro are still waiting to welcome a branch.
The next supermarket to find is Riba Smith, especially if you are a US expat and need to prepare something special for Thanksgiving. Riba Smith is known for its health foods and harder to find items for those special Panama recipes.
If you like US-style membership warehouse shopping, then you need to find a PriceSmart outlet, or “club”, as they refer to their warehouses. You will find large a variety at excellent prices.
Super 99 is another alternative, commonly found in Panama City. They stock a wide variety of food products at good prices.
Local fresh produce
Unlike a typical Mediterranean diet, the food in Panama does not include significant amounts of vegetables or greens.
A good variety, as well as a good quality of fresh produce, are available throughout the country, although the more rural areas will have less variety on offer. Where the cities have the advantage of supermarkets offering larger choice, the rural areas have the farmers markets where you buy fresh produce at really good prices.
Although Panama adopted the metric system in 2013, the fresh produce section in the supermarkets often display prices for both pounds and kilograms. Whether you are from the only country on this planet to use the standard system, or from civilization where the metric system is used, the local mix can easily get you stumped. The locals are used to it and get along with it just fine.
Local fish and meat
A common legend in Panama about the origin of its name is that there was a fishing village that bore the name “Panamá”, which purportedly meant “an abundance of fish.” What is not a legend though, is that Panama has very good seafood.
The most common and popular fish is Corvina, a type of sea bass that is normally used to make Ceviche.
Panama’s cuisine includes chicken, beef as well as pork, with chicken seemingly the favourite of the three. Mutton is widely available but consumed to a lesser extent.
Foodies and connoisseurs will have lots to say about the local red meats, and not all of it will be flattering. The local beef, specifically the portions available in small local supermarkets, will wean even the most ardent carnivore off beef.
Having said that, good quality beef and mutton are available, at correspondingly higher prices.
Processed meat is also readily available.
Food prices and your budget
When it comes to food in Panama, your consumer behaviour, especially a preference for imported brands and brand loyalty, will have a significant effect on your Panama budget.
We have done a quick experiment to demonstrate two things:
- How location, for example, a popular but far away tourist destination, can influence price (as opposed to shopping in large supermarkets in Panama City);
- How the preference for imported brands or brand royalty will affect your budget.
Since we found ourselves in Bocas at the time of writing this article, we visited the largest supermarket on Isla Colón and selected three items for our experiment.
The imported Hellmann’s (15 fl oz) is $2-95 while local brand Mayonesa (400g) is $1-95. Hellmann’s is 46% more expensive.
The imported Nescafe (60g) costs $4-75 while the local Duran (50g) is $2-05. Nescafe is 93% more expensive.
#3 Cooking oil
The imported Crisco (946ml) is $4-50, while local brands Helmet (900ml) is $1-99 and Cocinero (900ml) is $1-75. Crisco is 115% and 145% more expensive than local oils, respectively.
We randomly selected the three food items used for this quick demonstration. The comparisons are mathematically correct as we converted the prices to a common unit of measurement.
However, it does not take any other feature, such as nutritional value or perceived quality, into consideration. It is merely an exercise to illustrate how imported brands and brand loyalty can influence your budget and what it cost to live in Panama.
Three Panama dishes you should learn to make
Whether you call it a soup or a stew, Sancocho is the national dish of Panama.
One would think that a stew does not quite tie in with a tropical climate. Sancocho has put that notion to bed, as it remains a popular dish for any time of the day, from breakfast through to dinner.
It is healthy, hearty, very flavourful without being hot and very affordable. It truly is a Panamanian staple.
Sancocho at a glance
- Prep time 45 minutes
- Cooking time 1 hour 15 minutes
- Serving 6 people
- 1 chicken (about 4 lb), cut into pieces
- 1 lb yucca root (also called cassava), peeled and cut into pieces
- 3 lb yam (or sweet potato), peeled and cut into pieces
- 1 small bunch culantro, chopped
- 2 ears of corn, each cut in 3
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 green bell pepper, cut into small cubes
- 2 tablespoons oregano
- Place the chicken in a pot and cover with water. Cook over high heat for 5 minutes after boiling.
- Reduce heat and add yams, corn, and cassava. Cook over low heat for 45 minutes.
- Add the onion, bell pepper, culantro, garlic, salt, and 1 teaspoon oregano.
- Cook 15 minutes more.
- Turn off the heat and add the remaining oregano. Cover and wait 10 minutes before serving with rice.
PS: Sancocho is a very good cure for a hangover – say the locals.
If you love French fries, I am convinced you will enjoy Patacones. They are my favourite local dish and I enjoy them in combination with literally anything else.
Before I give you the simplest of recipes, a word on plantain.
My initial encounter with plantain was in 2002, during my first visit to Ghana. I had fried plantain with stewed goat, and that was it – I was hooked.
We all know bananas, so no need to describe them. Plantains, on the other hand, are longer, have thicker skins with some ridges, it is starchy and contains less sugar. Bananas are typically 85% water, whereas plantains are about 65% water. In addition, plantains are officially considered a vegetable.
Now back to the Patacones.
- 4 Large green plantains
- 4 cups water
- 2 tablespoons salt
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Place the 4 cups of water in a bowl, add 1 tablespoon of salt and stir. Then set aside.
- Peel the plantains and cut cross-wise (wheels) into 1/2” slices.
- Place the cut pieces in the bowl of salted water. Let sit 15-20 minutes. (This step adds flavour and gets rid of some of the starch) Once done, remove the plantain pieces from the water and blot completely dry with paper towels.
- In a medium heavy pot, add enough vegetable oil to cover the plantain slices and heat the oil over medium-high heat. You’ll know it’s hot enough when a small tester piece of plantain sizzles.
- Add the plantain slices to the heated oil in a single layer. (don’t crowd the skillet; it’s better to do in batches if needed). Fry for about 5-7 minutes per side until they are tender and just beginning to turn golden brown. Remove the plantains with a slotted spoon, and place them on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb excess oil.
Note: Remember to remove the pan from the stove. (Safety first!)
- Find a sturdy coffee mug and rub some cold cooking oil on the bottom. Gently press each plantain piece with the base of the mug, flattening it to ~1/4″ thickness. Small cracks on the edges are OK.
- Once all are flattened, reheat the oil and place the flattened plantain wheels back into the oil in a single layer (you may need to work in batches) and fry for an additional 3-4 minutes on each side.
- Remove the Patacones to a plate lined with fresh paper towels to absorb oil. (Don’t blot) Sprinkle with salt, to taste. Serve hot, as a side dish, or as a treat with guacamole, tomato sauce or salsa.
PS: Don’t let the colour fool you. To make Patacones, you will use green plantains. When the plantains become ripe to over-ripe, they change colour to yellow and then to black. They also become very sweet. However, they are still useful – and very tasty – as a fried side dish.
When I think about food in Panama, I think about the fish market near Casco Viejo.
If you do nothing else while you are in Panama City, then go to the ‘Mercado de Mariscos’, the fish market within walking distance of Metro 5 de Mayo. Here you can buy the best Ceviche in the whole of Central America, at astoundingly good prices.
Panama is blessed with great marine resources as well as abundant citrus produce, which are the main ingredients of Ceviche. If you want to experience the food in Panama, then a Ceviche with a cold beer will provide a memorable experience.
- 1 lb white saltwater fish (preferably Corvina or White Sea Bass)
- 1½ cups finely chopped red onion
- 1⅓ cups fresh lime juice
- ½ cup finely chopped celery
- ¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
- ½ hot pepper finely minced
- ½ teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
- salt to taste
- Cut the fish into bite-size pieces and place in a glass bowl of at least 2 inches high. Add all the other ingredients, mixing well. Make sure the lemon juice covers the fish.
- Cover with a plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator.
- Allow at least 6 hours for the fish to marinate in the lemon juice and onions. (Preferably overnight)
- Dish out into a cup or small bowl with a slotted spoon. Serve with crackers or Patacones.
PS: The citrus juice at the bottom of the cup is an aphrodisiac – say the locals.
Other local foods that are highly recommended
The food in Panama includes a long list of local dishes, too many to mention in one article. However, if you want to eat like an expat expert, you have to have Carimañolas and Tamales.
Like most Panamanian foods, this is another fried favourite. You can enjoy Carimañolas as an appetizer, a mid-day munchie or as a snack with a cold beer.
They are torpedo-shaped yucca balls, stuffed with either meat or cheese, and deep-fried to crispy perfection. Moist and flavourful, and easy to eat on the go.
The real treat of a Tamal is the way in which it is presented – wrapped inside a banana leaf. However, this is not for presentation purposes only. The Tamal is actually cooked inside this wrapping, where it is steamed to perfection, retaining all the moist and goodness.
Traditional Panamanian Tamales are made with corn dough mixed with raisins, olives and spices. Then it is filled with chicken or pork, before being tied up and cooked. A true representative of Panama cuisine.
Coffee gets the first mention because it is the only civilised way to start a day. And Panama’s coffee will not disappoint. The area around Boquete is well known for producing quality coffee beans.
A good variety of fruit juices is available, from both international companies and local producers. A well-known local producer is Panama Fruit, located in Coclé, a province southwest of Panama City.
The most popular locally produced beers are Balboa, Panama and Atlas. All three are pale lagers, with an ABV between 4,4% and 3,8%. They are the same price – cheap!
For those who are into craft beers, Panama has a number of craft brewers scattered around the country.
Expats can also choose from a large variety of imported brands, including Coors, Budweiser, Miller, Heineken and Corona, to mention a few.
Panama is not a wine producing country, so the wines displayed on shelves are imported. The most represented countries are Argentina, Chile and Spain, although I have seen wines from the US, Australia and South Africa.
Spirits and liqueurs are freely available in supermarkets, restaurants and bars.
Seco is the national drink; it is distilled from sugar cane and popular in rural areas where it is mixed with milk. However, the rum deserves a special mention.
Panama produces a wide variety of rums, including blends and craft rums. For a special treat, you should visit the Pedro Mandinga bar in Casco Viejo. It is the name of one of the finest craft rums in Panama.
The four most popular national brand names are Malecon, Origenes, Ron Abuelo and Ron Carta Vieja.
A local drink for the festive season
Ron Ponche is a popular festive season drink and very much part of Panama cuisine. And understandably so – it is cliché-to-die-for! Easy to prepare, even easier to share and enjoy.
- 2 cans condensed milk
- 3 cans evaporated milk
- 6 eggs (The original recipe calls for just the yolks)
- 6 to 8 drops Angostura bitters
- 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg grated (or to taste)
- ½ litre rum (Let your conscience guide you; or add a few drops for good karma)
- Combine the first 5 ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.
- Place in a pot and cook over medium heat for 20-30 minutes or until thick, stirring constantly without letting it boil.
- Add the nutmeg and remove from heat.
- Allow to cool and add the rum.
- Store in sealed bottles in the refrigerator. The taste improves with time.
That was a roundup of food in Panama. A big part of assimilating into the culture is getting to know, and enjoy the local food.
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world” – JRR Tolkien
I would love to have your thoughts on food in Panama and eating like an expat expert!
Below are a few tours I would definitely recommend doing while in Panama City.
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