Sunday, January 20, 2013

Panama City: Street Food

On the grill...
    One of the things I enjoy about traveling is the wide variety of foods we get to try. I knew absolutely nothing about Panamanian food, so each meal has been a learning experience. Sometimes we just order something, having no idea what it's going to be; other times we're misunderstood and end up with something altogether different then what we expected.  Most of the inexpensive restaurants here seem to by cafeteria style, with large containers of rice, lentils, chicken, maybe a beef stew, greasy spaghetti, cassava, and some fried foods. There are many other things as well, but these seem to be the common ones. There is also a delicious chicken soup called sancocho, which is mild and slightly thick from chunks of cassava. (You can try it at home using this recipe, substituting potatoes if you can't find yuca or cassava!) It's apparently the national dish of Panama. Sandwiches can also be ordered at many of these little eateries. The food here is not at all spicy, but the meat dishes are flavorful. Many vegetables don't grow well here so they don't feature prominently in the diet, but fresh, tropical fruits are abundant. 

    One things I haven't seen a lot of is street food. In Mexico, it seems there are always little carts selling tacos, tamales, churros, and more, and I thought I'd find more of that here. Today we went on a walk to Avenida Central, a main shopping area nearby. It's an interesting area, one we've been told to avoid after dark. An earnest old woman came up and communicated to us sternly that we must keep our eyes on our bags and our children, and that it's okay during the day but not at night. Most of the street is closed to traffic and filled with people. Shops of all kinds line both sides of the street, and outside people sell their wares on tables and blankets. It seemed like you could find just about anything you might want there, and it was most definitely off the beaten tourist track. It was here that we found our street food: old men pushing carts, young men grilling skewers of meat, hot dog and hamburger stands, carts with a large block of ice being shaved for raspados, ice cream, fruit juices and more. We ate lunch as we walked along the street, sampling different things as we went along.

Always thirsty, we enjoyed fresh coconut water, or agua de pipa. You can tell who's selling it because they have coconuts stuck on their cart! Cold and delicious, we were asked if we wanted the coconut meat as well. Yes, please! I particularly enjoyed this drink because it was so light and refreshing, and I don't think it was sweetened at all. Large cups were seventy-five cents each.

None of the kids were too fond of the young coconut meat, which was still tender. They all tried it though, and I didn't mind that they didn't like it because I got to eat the rest!
We sampled two different kinds of skewered, grilled meat, one that also had peppers and onions. The meat was basted as it was cooked and, although a bit tough, it was delicious. (We skipped the spiral cut hot dogs!) We also had a small plate with a thin, flat piece of grilled meat served over slices of starchy cassava. Total cost, three dollars. (Side note: although the money here is called a balboa, not a dollar, US dollars are used. Coins are of the same size and denominations, only they also have fifty cent and one balboa coins. Change given is often a mix of US and Panamanian coins.) 
Next up, fried plantain chips. The man has a special slicer in one hand and as he rubs the unripe plantain rapidly back and forth, the thinly sliced pieces drop into the bubbling oil. The finished product is a thin, crispy plantain chip! They were yummy, although a little greasy. The other bowl was chicharrones, fried pork rinds. We didn't get any today, although my kids love them. The plantains tasted slightly like lard, which may have been because they were fried in the same oil, or maybe they're actually fried in lard. I don't know. Total cost: one dollar for two bags.
The kids all enjoyed the fried plantain. Another day we tried patacones, which are another preparation of green plantain. They are sliced into rounds, smashed, and deep fried. They have a very starchy texture when made like this, almost like a french fry, and they're served as a savory side dish. Apparently they also roast ripe plantains and serve them sweet, but I have yet to see them.
Our last taste of the day was mango, which is also cut up green and sold in little baggies. Doused with vinegar and sprinkled with salt, it's almost crunchy and makes a refreshing snack. Once I got over thinking it should be soft and sweet I rather enjoyed it. As an aside, mangoes are one of my favorite fruits, particularly the paisley shaped variety sometimes known as champagne or atualfo, which is the kind I saw being used here. I'm always surprised when they're served green and savory instead of juicy and sweet, but it seems to be very common in the countries where they're grown. In Mexico we've had them with lime and chill. Cost for a baggie of mangoes: fifty cents.
Pearl was the only one of the kids who enjoyed the mango. She gnawed for quite a while on the pit, getting off every last morsel of flesh.
This isn't quite street food, but yesterday we visited the fish market and ate ceviche. Most commonly made of sea bass, it's "cooked" in lime juice and mixed with onion. Here Peregrine proudly showed off some octopus that was in our cup of mixed ceviche. All of the kids ate a little of this, but it wasn't a favorite. I like how it's served on tostada shells in Mexico, but I have a hard time eating much of it on it's own. 
We also visited the Mercado Publico, a huge indoor market full of stalls selling just about everything. We arrived after 2 and it was toward the end of market day, but we were able to sit down and get some food in the "food court". Erik gave Peregrine $1.50 and let him go pick something. What a great way for him to practice his Spanish! He ended up buying four large shrimp (for about twenty-five cents) and half a fried fish. I think he didn't have enough for the whole fish so he managed to communicate that he'd like whatever his money could buy. 
He was so excited with his purchases! The fish looked absolutely unappetizing to me, but he, Raphael, and Pearl ate it up. It came with a slice of a citrus fruit that was green on the outside, orange on the inside and very, very sour! 

He very kindly gave Pearl the head. That was after he hand-fed her the eyeball. She munched happily on the head for quite a while. I'm glad my kids are developing such adventurous pallets.

We shared several cups of jugos, or juices. They all seem to be  freshly juiced, but then mixed with water and sweetened. We tried piña, a fruit and veggie blend that included carrots and beets, and my favorite, naranja con raspadura. I know that naranjas are oranges, but the juice is a dark color and tastes much like honey and I wondered what raspaduras are. I looked it up last night and learned that it is unrefined cane sugar, full of all the natural minerals that get stripped out when they make it into white sugar. Here is a fascinating post about how raspadura is traditionally made here in Panama. Cost per cup- about sixty cents.
Another refreshing treat on the street is batidos, fresh fruit milkshakes. They are blended with fruit, ice,  milk, vanilla, and sugar. They are about $1.50 each.


  1. Thank you!!!

    Since I'm a foodie, I like to think I'd be adventurous if we ever traveled....however, there are things that would be hard for me to eat, such as octopus!

    This was a fun post and I loved seeing some of the things different cultures eat.

    1. I was thinking you'd like this one, Leanne!
      I don't mind octopus, but I'll pass on the fish heads!

  2. Wow! I love that your kids were eating the fish--eyeballs and all!! Ahhhh!! My avoidance of fish definitely rubs off on them...poor kids!

    That's cool about the cane sugar! It is pretty yummy...have you had fresh-squeeze cane juice before?

    Also...I'd love to try the vinegar green mangos you were talking about--sounds yummy! They have a dish in Thailand called Green Papaya salad...have you ever had it? It seems like SUCH a Mexican dish (tons of lime and spice...and could easily have the papaya substituted with jicama)--alas, no such thing there! Panama sounds fun!!

    1. I don't think I've ever had cane juice. We'll have to try it if we find some.
      I love green papaya salad! I took a cooking class in Chiang Mai years ago and it was one of the dishes we made. I tried to make it in the US once but didn't get a green enough papaya.

  3. WELL i guess the best street side food are the "Fondas" you shouldn't miss it in panama..I hope you must have tried with the Panamanian tortillas its finger licking !!The fish isn't what i like the most..But there are more food in Panama you should go for them..I am a foodie who loves to experiment with different cuisines ...

  4. Wow! I love that your kids were eating the fish-indian restaurants panama

  5. Thanks for share the blog!!the kids are so cute and the blog is informative too!!indian restaurants panama

  6. Thank you for this great travel journal :)


I love hearing from you and try to respond to your comments here on the page.