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An explosive fusion of Native American, Spanish, and African flavors, Panamanian foods bring a huge amount of Central American color, heat, and spice to the table.
Often pairing hearty staples, such as wheat and cassava, with exotic produce, salty-fresh seafood, and plenty of heat, sugar, and spice, there is so much to get excited about when it comes to Panamanian cooking.
So join us on a truly unique taste of Central America, guided by a local writer, as we uncover the wonders of Panamanian cuisine through 17 of its must-try dishes.
1 – Frituras Panameñas (Panamanian Fritters)
Frituras panameñas are a brilliantly diverse collection of mouthwatering sides, which are commonly eaten at breakfast or as afternoon snacks.
The star ingredients that make Panamanian fritters so widely adored are corn, cassava, pork, and flour. You can find them on almost every menu and, of course, served for every regional and national holiday.
- Torrejitas (Fried Corn Biscuits)
Simply made using just two ingredients – ‘old corn’ dough and a pinch of salt – these fritters are simple yet satisfying. Many chefs also add cornflour to the dough to increase its puffiness. Torrejitas, which are also called ‘buñuelos,’ are deep-fried and usually served with white cheese.
- Carimañolas (Fried Cassava Rolls)
Carimañolas are somewhat like a hybrid of an empanada (a turnover made from pastry and filling), a roll, and a dumpling. These delicious treats consist mostly of mashed cassava and ground beef.
- Tortilla Frita (Fried Corn Tortilla)
Once you try tortilla fritas, you’ll want to have them every day for breakfast for the rest of your life, they’re that tasty. Made using ‘old corn’ dough, they can be either fried or baked. Tortillas are usually served topped with American or white cheese.
- Hojaldre (Fried Biscuits)
Hojaldre are made from a deep-fried mix of flour, eggs, yeast, water, salt, and sugar. Though it sounds like a recipe for a cake, it’s actually a savory side, and you’ll want to tuck into these wholesome biscuits hot and fresh out of the frying pan.
- Lechona (Fried Pork Leg)
Lechona are irresistible chunks of pork leg, seasoned with onion, garlic, bell pepper, annatto, and ‘culantro’ — no, it’s not a typo for cilantro; both are herbs, but they’re separate types of plants that differ in flavor and aroma.
- Empanadas de Harina (Fried Flour Empanadas)
Although these little snacks aren’t as revered or popular as the other types of fritters, they can always be found in popular restaurants, going by the name ‘fondas.’ They’re exactly like hojaldres, but made in the shape of an empanada, and packed with ground beef or chicken.
- Almojábanos (Fried Corn Dough)
Just like the ‘tortillas fritas,’ this fried corn dough utilizes identical ingredients. What sets almojábanos apart, however, is in the way they are shaped. Typically found in Chiriquí, this fried corn dough delight is often baked with white cheese, giving the finished dish a rich, savory flavor.
- Chicharrón (Pork Crackling)
A well-seasoned and deep-fried pork belly. The dish is so crispy, in fact, you may want to take a look at your mouth later in the mirror, just to check you haven’t lost a tooth while eating it! But even if you did, chicharrón is so delicious, it would be worth it.
2 – Torrejitas de Bacalao (Fried Codfish Biscuits)
You’ll find the Caribbean spirit, and joy of the people of Colón, poured into this dish. It was through their Afro-Antillean influence that this irresistible starter was concocted.
Preparing it requires a lot of patience, mostly because of the natural saltiness of codfish. The fish has to go through a painstakingly long and thorough process to wash this excessive saltiness away.
After this process is completed, the codfish is mixed with cilantro, parsley, bell pepper, onion, curry, and flour dough. Some Panamanians also like to add hot sauce to their torrejitas, to add plenty of kick to each and every bite.
3 – Chorizo tableño (Las Tablas Sausage)
The monarch of all sausages. This artisanal meat is revered as the absolute best, and the more of it that is handcrafted, the better.
You’ll find the best ones while driving through the province of Los Santos. When you see a street vendor with a bunch of sausages hanging from a stall on the side of the street, don’t miss out – take the time to stop and buy a few.
The sausages are named ‘tableñas’, because they are traditionally prepared in a small town called Las Tablas. The skin of the sausage is made from porcine intestinal lining and the skin is carefully filled with aromatically seasoned pork.
The seasoning includes ingredients such as onion, garlic, culantro (an herb native to Central America), bell peppers, and annatto. Once prepared, the sausages are hung out to dry in the sun, then smoked, and finally fried to serve.
4 – Tamales
The Panamanian tamal is prepared with a base of ‘old corn’ dough. It is filled with well-seasoned chicken or pork, wrapped in a plantain tree leaf, and then boiled.
When the word tamal comes up in conversation, you can bet it’s the month of December, as tamales are on every family’s table during the Christmas period and on New Year’s Eve.
Much like the eternal Western debate of whether pineapple belongs on a pizza, every year in Panama debates rage in households over whether raisins belong inside tamales.
Some Panamanians love the addition of raisins, and others believe the fruit ruins the entire dish. With or without raisins, however, all Panamanians agree that tamales are one of the country’s most celebrated dishes.
5 – Bollos (Corn Rolls)
Over the years, these wholesome sides have gone through many transformations, yet Panamanians still love them all the same. Both a sweet or savory dish, the corn dough can be made from either recently harvested corn or older, dried corn.
If bollos are made with recently harvested corn, the corn is made into a dough, then placed back into the husk, tied, and then boiled.
Corn dough made with older corn is prepared and cooked in the same way, but is instead wrapped in a sugar cane leaf. Sweet bollos are commonly flavored with sugar-cane honey or coconut. Simple, and utterly delicious.
6 – Ceviche
Though you may typically associate this dish with Peruvian cuisine, you’ll find that Panamanian ceviche is very different and a simpler take on this Peruvian favorite.
In Panama, ceviche is a refreshing starter of diced white onion, lime juice, and a choice of seafood that includes shrimp, fish, octopus, or concha negra (black clams).
Ceviche can consist of one, two, or all the seafood listed above. In Panama, it is common for restaurants to try to make ceviche look and feel more gourmet by adding ingredients such as mayonnaise, bell pepper, grapes, black olives, or corn, much to the distaste of purists.
Ceviche is one of the few Panamanian dishes that is considered to be a true appetizer, and it is often associated with a day at the beach.
7 – Sancocho (Chicken Soup)
Sancocho one of the simplest, yet most revered dishes in Panama, and is a particular favorite for those who are hungover!
Genuine and authentic sancocho is made with a chicken taken from the backyard. Why? Home-raised chicken adds more flavor and gives the dish a more homely feel.
This revitalizing soup is made by slow-cooking a pot of fresh chicken with onion, garlic, culantro, and oregano. Once the chicken cooks enough to baste the other ingredients in the pot with its juices, water and yams are added. The result? Heaven on Earth.
8 – Arroz con Pollo (Chicken and Rice)
This is the official meal of all birthdays. If you’re invited to a birthday party in Panama and you aren’t welcomed with a huge plate of arroz con pollo, then check your map, because you must be in the wrong country!
This is one of the most universally adored dishes across all of Panama. Arroz con pollo is a rich, wholesome dish of seasoned chicken (commonly with onion, garlic, culantro, and annatto), rice, mixed vegetables, and olives.
The dish is typically served with potato salad. It is a dish delivered from the heavens and is the perfect example of how Panamanian cooking is simple but so flavorful.
9 – Bistec con Tortillas (Beef Steak and Fried Corn Tortillas)
This breakfast dish is renowned as a true energizer, and is both rich and filling. The beef steak is usually fried with a little onion and garlic, to give the tortilla filling plenty of kick.
In addition, tomato and annatto sauce are common additions to the beef filling. This dish is served with a spicy sauce, making every mouthful a wonderous fusion of sweet, acidic, savory, and spicy flavors.
10 – Guacho (Panamanian Risotto)
Essentially a ‘Panamanian risotto,’ gaucho is a dish that is great for your body and soul – especially if it’s cooked on a fire pit in the backyard of a countryside home!
The preparation of guacho involves so many ingredients that whenever locals want to say they have a lot going on, they say, “this is a whole guacho.”
This Panamanian favorite starts out as a seafood broth, gently cooked as you would a soup, with a range of ingredients. In time, rice is added to the mixture. Once ready, gaucho resembles the look of a risotto, but with less of a thick, sticky texture.
Pig tail can also be used in gaucho, and the dish is served doused with a special spicy sauce over the top, known as ‘sofrito’.
11 – Arroz, Menestras y Carne (Rice, Beans, and Meat)
This is generally the standard meal for the average Panamanian’s lunch or dinner. In fact, in Panama, it won’t take long to realize that rice is the foundation of almost every meal.
The lentils, beans, and peas are cooked as soups and then poured on top of the rice to create a rich, earthy stew. When it comes to the meat, the dish is very diverse and can be served with chicken, beef, pork, or seafood.
Although this is a classic Panamanian meal, you’ll struggle to find it served at restaurants and even less so in metropolitan areas. You will, however, be sure to find it on everyone’s plates at lunchtime and is very much a homecooked dish.
12 – Arroz con Guandú (Pigeon Peas and Rice)
Arroz con guandú is a festive plate, usually served on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. When in Colon or Bocas del Toro, you’ll often smell the aroma of coconut from this dish, as locals cook it with the rice. This, however, is not such a common practice in other provinces.
Pigeon peas and rice is another Panamanian dish that comes from the country’s Afro-Antillean influence, established in Panama when both the railway and the canal were being built.
Pigeon peas are in such high demand throughout December, vendors can be seen lining the Pan-American highway, selling several packs of them at inflated prices. During this time pigeon peas may be expensive, but they are worth it to cook this dish.
13 – Pescado Frito con Patacones (Fried Fish and Plantains)
Pescado frito con patacones is popular throughout Panama. Every province in the country has a universal devotion to fish and fried plantains. So much so, the dish is prepared and eaten by people of every race and social class.
Though this plate is typically prepared with snapper fish, the snapper can be substituted or combined with any type of fish, and in all honesty, nothing is off the menu when it comes to seafood.
The ‘patacones’ are rich fried plantains that are first smashed and then fried again before serving. The crispiness of both the fish and plantains is one of Panama’s textural delights when it comes to food.
14 – Dulces Panameños (Panamanian Sweets)
You’ll want to drive all the way out to Penonomé and Antón to find the cream of the crop when it comes to dulces panameños. You’ll notice these sweets instantly, owing to their funky, brightly colored wrappings. The most famous flavors are as follow:
- Huevitos de Leche (Egg-Shaped Caramel)
These sweet little eggs consist of a delightful mixture of milk, sugar, and cinnamon.
- Suspiro (Corn Flour Biscuit)
Suspiro are made from corn flour, sugar, cinnamon, butter, and eggs. The mixture is whipped into a dough, which is then swirled into small, spiral-shaped sweets, before being baked in the oven.
- Merengue (Meringue)
Essentially a Panamanian macaroon, merengue consists of a mixture of egg yolk, sugar, a little lime juice, and food coloring. They are formed with a piping bag and baked in the oven.
- Cocadita, Cocada and Queque (Coconut Cookies)
Though similar in name, these cookies taste nothing alike. They all contain the same sweet, coconut flavor, but the preparation and ingredients vary.
15 – Arroz con Leche (Rice Pudding)
Arroz con leche, Panama’s take on the globally popular rice pudding, is a chilled dessert made from rice, milk, condensed milk, cream, and cinnamon.
For this peculiar but delicious dessert, the rice is simmered in boiling water, then all ingredients are mixed, before being cooked in a water bath. Once that process is complete, the pudding is refrigerated for a few hours, to be served cold.
Interestingly, there is a long-standing Panamanian tradition in households across the country, where arroz con leche is made to celebrate a baby getting their first tooth. Parents send samples of arroz con leche to the closest members of their family to mark the occasion.
16 – Pesada de Nance (Nance Jam)
Nances are a golden-yellow fruit, native to Panama. Known for its oily texture and sweet, acidic taste, nances are used in a range of dishes in Panamanian cuisine.
Pesada de nance is a beloved sweet treat, made from boiling nances with a mixture of flour and sugar-cane honey. This mixture is then slowly simmered on the stove until it reduces and becomes rich, thick, and wonderfully sweet.
Pesada de nance is regularly served with crumbled white cheese on top. This is a very homemade kind of dessert, and you will struggle to find it on menus in restaurants. It’s most commonly prepared by folks living in the Azuero region.
17 – Raspado (Crushed Ice Dessert)
You’ll hear of people craving this immensely refreshing Panamanian delicacy on hot summer afternoons. Raspado is a dessert that becomes a flavorful drink as soon as the sun hits it.
It is made from crushed ice, a variety of sweet flavorings, and condensed milk. The mix is then served in a cone-shaped cup.
Raspado is not sold at restaurants, and you’ll typically find this Panamanian delight sold in parks and at beaches on weekends and holidays. They are sold out of a vehicle reminiscent of an ice cream cart, and on scorching summer days, you’ll see people lining up in crowds to get their hands on one.
Panamanian Foods Summary
One of Central America’s most underrated cuisines, Panamanian food brings freshness, heat, color, and flavor to dinner tables across the country.
From beach-trawling food vendors to high-end restaurants, great food, prepared with love, heart, and passion, can be found throughout Panama.
Embrace the fusions. Savor the flavors. And be sure to have this list of foods, on-hand, for when you next visit Panama so that you can seek out and enjoy all that is authentic about the country’s culinary offerings.
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Contributor: Marjorie Herrera is a bilingual transcriber, content writer, and translator from Panama City, Panama. With a wealth of experience in several industries, she is eager to share more about Panamanian culture, cuisine, and history through her writing.
Editor: Hannah Bates is an editor from London who has worked with various travel publications.
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