Panama Rising: Discovering the Bounty of Panama
Few things enthrall me as much as the opportunity to dig deeper into the Latin American “plate.” As a Colombian-born, Canadian-raised food writer, it’s where my heart and soul feels most sated. It’s the food of the Caribbean coast, the Andes, the plateaus and forests with its cacao beans, multi-hued potatoes, sugar cane, rum and tropical fruit that make my heart beat faster. And every once in a while, a kindred spirit sees this singular passion of mine and offers to take me into her country or city’s kitchens. Recently, that generous hostess was Chef Elena Hernandez – one of the masterminds behind Panama Gastronomica, a yearly food and wine fair that puts Latin America and Panama on the plate primero!
Here’s an appetizer-sized taste of what I was fortunate enough to experience in Panama City and during Panama Gastronomica 2012. Gracias Panama, and gracias Chef Hernandez for stoking the fires yet again.
1- Panamanian food is accessible, flavourful and speaks to its surroundings more so than it does to any haute cuisine/Alta cocina principles (though this is changing in some remarkable ways as I found out). For the most part, true reflections of the local flavours are to be found at the fondas, the roadside food stands that are commonplace across the country. For those who like their dining in more comfortable surroundings, one of the most authentic eateries is Diablicos, found in the Casco Viejo – old town Panama City. Here it’s all about the ubiquitous carimañolas (yucca fritters stuffed with ground meat), ceviche served in deep fried, green plantain cups and a glorious Pescado a la Chorrillera – literally a local sea bass done chorrillera style, entailing the deep frying of a whole well seasoned fish, served with fried green plantain slices and a tomato-pepper based relish on the side. Firm, white fleshed fish with tropical nuances- there’s nothing better.
2- “We’ve had an ongoing fascination with Spanish food here, Italian, French, Japanese and so on. It’s time to put the focus back on Panama,” explains one of the city’s most talented and impassioned local chefs, Mario Castrellon, chef/owner of the much lauded Maito restaurant. He’s bang on because this is a cuisine that fuses Afro-Caribbean, Spanish, French, Asian, American and indigenous culinary traditions into a delicious melting pot that reflects the climate and geography of this land-bridge between two continents. And it’s a cuisine that local chefs are working hard to present to locals and visitors alike with the kind of pride it richly deserves. At Maito, there’s an updated take on tasajo- a salted, smoked then fried piece of steak that in this case is shredded like pulled pork and served atop Caribbean fry bread called hojaldra. A dainty fried Cornish hen’s egg crowns the smoky amuse. One of the table’s favourites is the drool-worthy “cheesecake” dessert made with vegetable isinglass; a seaweed that’s often blended with milk and spices and consumed as a drink by those of Afro-Antillean roots. Cinnamon, sugar, and ginger combine to produce a light, not-too-sweet intriguing cheesecake topped with a strawberry compote, that we all swore was made with yoghurt!
3- At Panama Gastronomica, local chef/culinary school instructor at the Panama International Hotel School Francisco Castro starts by guiding the audience through his vision of modernizing the Panamanian “Fonda”- roadside stalls that make typical dishes including the ubiquitous deep fried treats. “I’m trying to rescue recipes we enjoy at fondas and apply them to the future using new techniques,” explains Castro adding, “To me, these dishes are entwined with family memories. Our food tells the history of conquests and conquistadors where we always take the best that each has left us until we’ve arrived at a place that says Panama.”
To highlight this point, Castro prepares a national favourite: a soup made of chicken and root vegetables called sancocho de gallina, a Spanish inheritance. His version is presented on a “sancocho periodic table” which includes C for culantro (cousin to cilantro with a different, more pronounced flavour), M for maize, and O for otoe (a kind of taro root). The elements get a high-tech treatment- the rice is puffed, the local spicy chile called aji chombo is turned into a gelatin cube, and the fragrant broth is served in a tea pot. The diner adds the elements he/she would like into the bowl before the broth is poured. The result is whimsical, inordinately delicious and all based on what’s local and seasonally available.
4- It’s here at Panama Gastronomica that I’m also introduced to chef Charlie Collins, the “go-to” chef for the last three Panamanian presidents for their inaugural balls and state functions. In front of culinary students, press and gourmands, Chef Collins prepares one of his signature dishes, delicate Boquete river trout filets with a watercress salsa over young corn gnocchi and Panamanian sofrito. Like Castrellon, he has forged close ties with organic producers and fishermen in Boquete, six hours from Panama City, where the Collins family runs one of the country’s most exquisite inns called Panamonte. “We were raised to believe that everything imported was of better quality than what we had in our country. This is one of the reasons why you see so much American cuisine influencing us in Panama,” says Collins adding that the last decade has witnessed chefs reinterpreting Panamanian cuisine and giving it a sophisticated nuance.
5- Alfonso de la Espriella makes the kind of food he’d like to eat, in Spanish that’s known as “cocina de autor.” After working abroad with greats like Laurent Tourondel, de la Espriella has concluded that his culinary mantra is firmly rooted in the “less is more” camp. His plates are clean, well balanced and never really simple- even if they look like they might be. At Panama Gastronomica, the head chef at La Trona prepares a beautiful spicy, locally caught yellow fin tuna that gets its heat from the country’s well-loved aji chombo, or chombo chilie. Seared on the outside only and sliced so that its fleshy, pink exterior shines like jewels, chef crusts the fish with the aji and serves it with local zapayo- a type of pumpkin or squash. The result is colourful, beautiful and truly delicious, like any good Panamanian plate should be!
6- And finally, I end on a chocolate note with cacao expert and Latin American cuisine grande dame, Maricel Presilla who leads a tutored tasting with the award winning, biodynamic, raw single origin Pacari chocolates from Ecuador. Owner and visionary Santiago Peralta stands beside Maricel as they guide us through the 60% cacao Esmeraldas produced from a small 15 hectare farm that tastes of dulce de leche, toffee or panela, all the way up to the 2010 harvest of Nube- white seed cacao bars. This 70% cacao explosion is redolent of sublime floral notes, with rose coming out on top. There are only three thousand of these impressive bars in the world; Santiago calls it “the Lamborghini of chocolates.” Maricel describes it as “a drop of perfume on the tongue.” I am blissfully anointed.