Let me tell you about a little thing we like to call concolón here in Panama. I had first experienced something like this while eating paella in Spain. Upon realizing that the best part of the meal was the over-cooked, some-what-burnt crust left on the bottom of the dish, I forevermore asked to be served […]
Let me tell you about a little thing we like to call concolón here in Panama.
I had first experienced something like this while eating paella in Spain. Upon realizing that the best part of the meal was the over-cooked, some-what-burnt crust left on the bottom of the dish, I forevermore asked to be served last when there was a paella, knowing that the goodness was tucked away beneath the smattering of shellfish, rabbit, or chicken bits. In Spain, this crusty phenomena is call socarrat.
So, coming into a Panama, a culture big on rice, I was primed when my first host mother asked me if I wanted some concha, or shell. I had established that I was not a big rice eater, but that night we were having arroz con coco y guandú, a rice dish cooked with coconut milk and fresh pigeon peas. She had served me a plate of which, to her astonishment, I finished. It had a delicate coconut flavor and the peas had the toothsome texture similar to a fresh lima bean. She went back into the kitchen and I heard the rough scrape of the serving spoon against the deep pan Panamanians use to cook their seemingly endless amounts of rice in: la paila.
Like one of Pavlov´s dogs, my head shot up as I realized what is going on:
“Oiga,” she called. “Hay una buena concha aqui. Usted desea concolón?”
My Spanish at this point is purely of the European strand; I am hearing words that I am unfamiliar with but a sound I know well.
I confirm that concolón is indeed the crusty bottom of the rice pan.
Yes. Give me your concolón and change my mind about Panamanian cuisine.
The rice had been toasted dry at the bottom of the paila and had gathered all the peas and coconut milk that were pressed down to the base of the pan. A bit of oil (well, the quantity depends on the chef) adds to the intoxicating crunch of it all.
I am a concolón connoseuir.
That first concolón opened the door for discovery, but since I have experienced better. Why were they better? Let us discuss what happened yesterday.
The help in the restaurant this Saturday was on-point. Three women—the cook, a dishwasher and a front of the house—worked flawlessly together, thus allowing for a little inspired creative cooking.
Edilma, the owner and hostess, called in a restaurant regular to peel some coconuts. He grabbed a machete and chopped away.
The coconut was pureed in a blender and left to sit in water for about 45 minutes to produce leche de coco, or coconut milk. The bits of coconut were strained and pressed, expelling all excess coconut flavor.
The rice was toasted dry in the bottom of a large paila before the coconut milk was added. The grains were now left to rest, to do their thing and absorb all they could of the coconut milk. A toasty, nutty and somewhat tropical aroma infused the kitchen. True coconut is nothing like the cloying scent of a Banana Boat sunscreen.
In about 40 minutes, the rice is ready but I ain´t eatin’ it! Well, not yet anyway. In another hour and a half the concolón will be formed and accessable as the 10 pounds of light fluffy rice will have been served to restaurant clientele.
“Casey, I’ve got a nice shell forming here,” come Edilma’s tantalizing words.
I wait another ten minutes before taking a large metal spoon and scraping down the sides and across the bottom of the pan. The rice grains themselves have become translucent, golden-hued and stuck together in small shards, holding onto one another as a little conocolón family should.
The first crunch is always a surprise. It is not a snap nor a crisp, nor is it a munch. The crunch of concolón is an all-over reverberating burst of hard yet comestible grains. The sounds around me are muted as all I hear is the grinding of toasted coconut-infused rice grains within my own head. I am served a half a cup of rice and as I finish my jaw is tired. I wonder about the integrity of my molars and hold myself back from going right in for more. The only thought enabling me to refrain from an immediate repeat is that I know tonight will offer an even toastier and crunchier concolón. I wait for dinner and the reprise, the cacophony of crunch crunch crunch that will ring in my eardrums from the inside out.
This was a concolón to be recorded.
Where to get it/ How to find it: Your best chance to try a great, authentic concolón is at a restaurant that uses a fogón, an open flame stove (i.e. not a gas stove-top). The flames licking the sides of the paila get the bottom of the rice nice and crispy and give it an almost smokey flavor. Of course, a good cook is able to achieve a decent concolón on a gas stove as well. When you order, simply ask the waitress if there is concolón. If she gives you a sly, knowing smile, you are in good hands. If she says no, first ask her to check but don’t push it any further. If they say no, it usually implies that even if there were some concolón, it isn’t any good.