Branches covered in bulbs of yellow, green, orange, and red—reminiscent of those large, colored lights that come out around Christmas time—hang from carts and stalls. When July rolls around, pickup trucks drive around adorned with these palm fruits, drivers calling out in scratchy baritone voices, “the pifa have arrived”. With variations on pronunciation and spelling, the […]
Branches covered in bulbs of yellow, green, orange, and red—reminiscent of those large, colored lights that come out around Christmas time—hang from carts and stalls. When July rolls around, pickup trucks drive around adorned with these palm fruits, drivers calling out in scratchy baritone voices, “the pifa have arrived”.
With variations on pronunciation and spelling, the Santeños say they have it right when they say peex vai and spell is as P-I-X-V-A-E, while the more humble of Panamanians know them as pifa and have no idea how it might be spelled. When all is said and done, what matters is that it is indeed pifa season.
In English we are supposed to know them as “peach palm fruit,” but let us forget about that and simply know them as pifa, the starchy, oily, orange-fleshed orbs dangling off the back of the veggie-laden pickup trucks or sold by street vendors and roaming children in steamed-up plastic bags.
As early as the end of June and until the middle of August, pifa will be jumping out at you. In the city, large basins covered in a plastic cloth are filled with still-warm, salt-boiled pifa. On a bus out to the Darien, have your quarter ready as 9 year-old boys jump onto the bus squawking, “ pifa, at a quarter. Pifa is here!” At schools and around small towns, keep an eye open for the small packages of three pifa to a plastic bag or stop by your neighbor’s house to see if they have a pot on the back burner, bubbling away.
Pifa used to be consumed as a substantial meal before heading out for work all day. With lots of (good) fats and a nice load of calories, pifa make for a nice, full tummy. As the world changes and we need less but eat more, pifa have become an afternoon snack or a midnight treat to nibble upon.
To cook the palm fruits, each bulb is scored on the tip to allow entry to the copious amount of salt added to the water. The pifa are left submerged in a rolling boil for no less than an hour. Even if sodium conscious, don’t try to cut back on the salt or the fruits will come out bitter. Scoop them out, let them cool a bit, and then use your teeth to peel off the thin, sometimes discolored (but it’s okay) skin to reveal the dry, starchy flesh. Their taste is curious. Unlike a potato, nor cassava root, nor really any other familiar starch, they are indeed unique. You may like them, you may dismiss them as an unneeded calorie boost, but they sure are fun to peel and eat.
If you are feeling truly adventurous, save the hard pip inside, toast it a bit, and crack it open. Inside is a white meat similar to a dense ball of coconut or even a macadamia nut.
Eat them with cheese, substitute them for half the potatoes in a potato salad, or mash them up with something sweet. Better yet, though creativity is appreciated, it is probably best that you simply eat them out of hand and share them with whatever man, woman, or child is sitting next to you. It’ll be a good conversation starter.
Where to get ’em/How to find ’em: Late June through Mid-August is pifa season. Find them ready-to-eat at bus stations, outside of supermarkets, or on Avenida Central in Panama City. If buying them for yourself, look for the plump orange-y-red fruits, avoiding the longer, more slender (and bitter tasting) ones. Boil them with plenty of salt for a long time (an hour or so) until you can get a fork into them with a little pressure. They tend to be sold at outdoor food stalls, COMPITA (government subsidized produce markets), and off of the back of produce pickup trucks.