Panamanian chefs share some of the typical Panamanian recipes, their history and the socio-cultural value behind each dish.
The gastronomy of Panamá is made up of varied and numerous dishes influenced by Panamá’s multicultural history. For this occasion, Panamanian chef José Eduardo Aparicio recommends the emblematic ‘Guacho de rabito,’ a local dish that dates back to the construction of the Panama Canal:
“Afro-descendant people took advantage of the cuts of meats discarded by the French and Americans to prepare their food. Today some of these recipes are part of our menu. The ‘Guacho de rabito’ is a great reference of local gastronomy.”
For its preparation, he recommends boiling the pig tail in plenty of water to remove the salt with which it was cured. Next, change the water when it reaches a boil (repeat this 3 times).
Then, in a pot sauté onion, garlic, tomato, coriander and chili pepper. Once well caramelized, add chicken broth and the beans that have been soaked the night before. For the next step, let it boil and add the chopped tail.
“Once incorporated, we let it cook for 30 minutes. We add yucca, otoe, pumpkin, diced ñampí and the rice. I put some chorizo in it, stir well and let it cook for 30 more minutes over medium heat, always pending to stir and add more chicken broth if necessary. Once the rice bursts and the beans are soft, we add the salt and it’s ready,” he shares.
As for the crown stew, it has onion, garlic, tomato, coriander, minced chili, all finely chopped and sautéed with a little coconut oil and tomato paste until the texture reaches the right consistency with a little broth and salt.
Aparicio emphasizes that in his daily work he represents the national gastronomy through the experiences he creates for the diner. Through his cuisine, Aparicio invites diners to explore the flavors of native recipes, elevated and fused with touches of the classic and the modern.
“There is nothing more rewarding than bringing those flavors to customers.”
Regarding the evolution of the national Panamanian gastronomy, he is proud of what has been achieved. Foreign and local diners are attracted to the cuisine and to the discovery of new flavors and techniques.
“Many diners are referred to our restaurant wanting to know more about our gastronomy. This fills me with pride. There is a great effort that goes into highlighting our culinary customs. Some of our great colleagues are taking our gastronomy to various corners of the world. Seeing them there makes me dream. I admire them a lot,” he says.
Local cuisine is a very competitive market. “I dream of an alliance. We have to work together and row in the same direction. There is an urgent need for a united guild in which we can support each other and finally have a well-organized representation abroad.”
He affirms that Panamá can be positioned as an international gastronomic hub and for this he suggests “organizing and planning with the help of government entities,” who can take steps to “position our country as a gastro-cultural destination.”
Saus, Sao o Sous
Panamanian Chef Ana Torres states that although she has a long list of favorites, her recommendation consists of a typical dish called ‘Sous’ made of pork leg in vinaigrette.
This recipe originates from the French root word, souse, which means to immerse in a liquid and is used when referring to pickle. On the isthmus, it is known by a variety of names such as saus, sao, but the correct pronunciation is sous.
In this dish, the lemon is king, and ingredients such as ají chombo are added to this. “This dish is exquisite. It was developed in the midst of the scarcity by the people who built our Panama Canal.”
“Sao comes from the Afro-Caribbean ethnic group. They established a way to preserve this delicacy. It seems to me that cooking is a form of rebellion, and Sao is a representation of this. Imagine that because you have a different skin color or are from a different country it is determined that you will get the least desired cuts and in spite of this, they come up with a delight like sao. That’s a slap to the palate!” she says.
For the chef, the most important thing when preparing this recipe is to clean the legs very well, and the cooking process prior to marinating the liquid with lemon, chombo pepper and other ingredients.
As for her work, she maintains that she always tries to use local products. The chef tries to know where they come from, who sells them or who resells them before using them in her recipes.
“I feel happy. We are beginning to be notorious elsewhere. There is no longer reference to Panamá to speak only of our canal. Gastronomy has positioned itself and has crossed borders, now they know us for our ceviches, meats, and smoked meats. In the country there are very creative people betting on staying here and opening their restaurants,” she says.
Torres agrees with Aparicio that the national territory can position itself as a gastronomic benchmark for the region.
“I have traveled a lot in Panamá and I have seen many chefs doing very interesting things in places like Boquete, Volcán, Bocas del Toro, Colón and even in some regions; however, to enhance our gastronomy, more gastronomic events are required that attract a lot of tourism to both chefs and foodies.”
Pernil en paila
Panamanian Chef Manuel Lee shares that he is currently cooking in the area with the highest food production in Panamá, which is the province of Chiriquí precisely in the area of Volcán and Cerro Punta.
“This entails promoting and valuing the product and the local producer and thus making a sustainable cuisine.”
This time Lee shares his recipe for ‘Pernil en paila,’ a traditional dish from the area.
“This dish was made by peasants. It was cooked at home in pots because they did not have an oven and they adapted to the circumstances.”
The chef notes that the ingredients include achiote, garlic, oil, onion, sour orange. “With these ingredients a paste is made and then rubbed the leg with this mixture. Then it is heated in the wood stove and cooked for seven hours covered with a sanding sheet.”
In the context of local cuisine, Lee notes that over the years “you can see the evolution of different types of cuisine such as sustainable cuisine, food truck cuisine, and typical recipes that facilitate the exchange of cultures and ingredients.”
“Panamá has great exponents and restaurants, you just have to devise a work plan to publicize our gastronomy and reference points of Panamanian cuisine. We have to make our food more attractive and really be a melting pot of races of culture and flavors,” he considers.
The chef faithfully believes that gastronomic festivals “are cultural and knowledge entry points to tell the world who we are,” since Panama “has a multicultural richness. From here, festivals can be held in the country.”
He mentions that the “Panamá Paila y Sazón,” (sustainable food festival) could be an idea to promote Panamanian gastronomy. “The festival would consist of dividing the participants by provinces, choosing the representative chefs of each area and mixing them with the great chefs that we have in the towns and on the farms of each province and making an exchange of flavors and techniques.”
Each Panamanian dish protects a history, a tradition and houses a range of flavors that attract the palate of local and foreign diners to the isthmus.
Astrid Chang has a degree in Journalism with an Emphasis in Audiovisual Production. Since 2018, she has been a journalist at La Estrella de Panamá. Her work in the newspaper was initially as an intern, where she developed in the area of sports, nationals, social networks and the web. Later, she was hired to lead the themes for World Youth Day and to be a presenter for the segment “Flash Economy.” She later became part of the Café Estrella team, a new content proposal by ‘La Decana’. In this booklet she has written articles on the environment, technology, health, sports, society, music, culture, sexuality, art, fashion and tourism. Likewise, she has organized and directed projects with visual artists for the International Book Fair of Panama. She too, was sent special to cover the Lima 2019 Juegos Parapanamericanos, and currently she is the coordinator of sports issues in the newspaper. She has training in journalistic leadership.