Soup in PanamaWhen you come back from the field and you are suffocated, as Panamanians say, from the heat, it would be very dangerous to sit down and simply eat lunch. You have to have a hot cup of coffee first so that you don’t “hurt yourself.” I doubt Panamanian farmers have a scientific understanding as to why but it is a ritual that is practiced time and time again amongst certain circles of fumigators, corn-harvesters and lasso-swinging’ men out in the Darien [the eastern-most, wild-west-esque, province of Panamá].

After their steaming hot, usually sugar-saturated cup of coffee, men can sit down to the most coveted of standards here: soup.

Be it bone-based, free-range chicken or cow hoof, soup is a favorite in Panamá – and with good reason. In a culture that tends towards quick frying and adding flavor packets for a quick fix on tough meat or flavorless cuts, the soup is a work of true patience and creativity in the Panamanian kitchen.

Fish, beef, pork or chicken could be available on a given day, so it is cut into portions and seasoned for the soup. It would be blasphemous to mix animal families – no lobster and beef, no chicken and sausage. It is best to keep it simple and stick with one beast per pot.

The soup needs some filler to it, something that is going to stick to your ribs and have you headed back out to finish your day’s labor ,whether it be sewing hems or sowing crops. Thence comes the time for experimenting a bit. Just a bit though as the Panamanians are not too adventurous with their taste buds. Black pepper is enough to have them turning up their noses.

In the kitchen, a cook might have some tortillas from breakfast, a hunk of pumpkin from yesterday’s meal; a cassava root here, a taro root there. The cook uses his – lets be serious HER– discretion to select, part and compile a melee of roots and tubers to add to the cauldron. Culantro, onion, garlic, celery and carrot are generally the base. The sign of a caring chef – one who has not simply dumped in a handful of bouillon cubes – is the unmistakable flurry of coarsely chopped culantro bits floating on the surface of the bubbling concoction.

The aromatic vegetables are given a quick fry in oil on the bottom of a deep stock pot – the ubiquitous paila – before getting doused with water, hunks of seasoned animal flesh and the day’s selection of starch. The creation is left to bubble, gurgle and thicken from right after breakfast until midday when hungry men, women and children come a-calling’. Depending on how patient the diners and how the carbohydrate family has broken down, the soup can be thin and broth-like or thick and chowder-like.

Now. How do we eat the soup? Well, even if the soup is filled with myriad carbohydrates, it will indeed be accompanied by white rice. Some like to spoon the broth onto the rice then alternate a slurp of soup with a spoonful of rice while others prefer to scoop the grain, lower the spoon delicately into the broth and consume the mouthful of the now soupy rice.

Soup Bowls Panama

Regardless of how you eat the broth and starchy vegetables it is an unwritten cultural norm that the beef, chicken or pork is not eaten until it has been uncovered. Once the level of broth has been slurped away (thus exposing the protein) it can then either be eaten with fingers or hacked at with the edge of a spoon.

Soup in Panamá makes sense. The heat inside is ultimately going to cool you off. Or so they say…With so many people struggling to feed a family, this one-pot-boil is going to retain more vitamins and minerals than any other Pana-method of cooking. No oil used to be wasted on deep-frying or contributing in clogging loved ones’ arteries. When uncles, aunts and all the kids they have between them show up, simply throw some water on the pot to fill all those bellies. Soup is cheap at a restaurant, requires little attention once it is thrown in a pot and we all know how comforting and satisfying a steamy bowl of whatever-it-might-be is no matter where you are from.