If you call yourself an adventure traveler, you may even claim to to be daring when it comes to trying some of the crazier items on the local food vendor’s table. Perhaps the meat on a stick doesn’t phase you, or that chewy round piece of the chicken that was served to you deep fried doesn’t freak you out too much with it’s unique texture (This is a reference to the title. The answer is: chicken liver, if you were wondering). The bottom line is that you’ve come to get to know Panama, and that means trying out all there is to offer on its menu.

To newcomers, Panamanian cuisine might surprise you. Compared to it’s other Central American neighbors, the Panamanian plate has larger proportions of rice and meat, instead of corn or rice dishes (however those are present). A plato típico  or typical plate usually contains a large portion of rice, a small side of kidney beans or lentils, the presa which is most commonly chicken, beef, pork, or fish, a small salad of tomato slices or greens, and a fried ripe plantain slice known as a tajada. While there are variations on this standard combination, after you’ve had your fair share these items, you’ll come to expect them as essential parts of your diet. Other items which are commonly found on the menu include: patacones (fried smashed plantains), yuca (cassava, a root vegetable), and a variety of other root vegetables served boiled or fried. Corn is common in tortillas, but not like the mexican tortillas cooked thinly. Panamanian tortillas are a thick corn dough fried to be crispy and usually served with eggs or meat for breakfast.

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The presa, beef being prepared for a Panamanian gathering

Whether these descriptions intrigue or frighten you, it’s important to know the ins and outs of what to order, in the effort to make the most of your time in Panama. I have divided a few of my favorites into three categories (as an introduction, I must say that when I travel to any new country, I always try to taste a few items from each of these categories): “The Good”, “The Awesome”, and “The Weird”. There are many foods that could fall under these categories, but here’s some you shouldn’t miss!

Sancocho – If it’s your first time in Panama, the first thing that will impact and affect you is the midday heat. The second thing will be the fact that a piping hot bowl of chicken soup will then be served to you at this time. That’s right, one of the most popular and delicious lunch items in Panama is sancocho, a chicken soup complete with culantro (similar to cilantro) and ñame a root vegetable similar to a potato.  The soup is most commonly eaten with a small side of white rice. While it may seen counterintuitive to eat hot soup on a hot day, Panamanians believe it is actually good for you, in order to allow the body to sweat and cool off. And it’s quite delicious!

 

Arroz con Pollo – If you’re friendly enough to meet a few locals, you may get invited to a family gathering or party in Panama, and when you do, you will most certainly get to try some arroz con pollo. This is a dish of white rice cooked with shreaded chicken, a few vegetables, and olives (if you’re lucky!). While the plate resembles more of a Chinese fried rice dish than food from Latin America, it is a Panamanian staple and something worth trying if you get the chance! Those who are healthy eaters should beware; it is flavored with a package of MSG usually, however what it lacks in nutrition, it makes up for in taste! It is usually served with a side of potato salad so starting making friends with some birthday boys and girls and get yourself a plateful!

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A typical dish of arroz con pollo (image courtesy of rockabitebaby.com)

 

“The Awesome”

Ceviche – For you seafood lovers looking to try a classic Panamanian starter, you will LOVE ceviche. Prepared only in lime juice (no cooking), ceviche can be made up of different types of locally found fish or shellfish (if you have allergies, please order the type of ceviche with caution). The most standard type for someone trying this item for the first time is ceviche de corvina a white fish, very light in taste. Other varieties include camarones (shrimp), pulpo (squid), and combination. Ceviche is normally served with some saltine crackers on the side and is enjoyed best on a warm night with a cold beer! How refreshing!

Raspa’o – By far, this is my favorite any time of day dessert item in Panama. What pleased you more as a child on a hot summer day than a nice snow cone? In Panama, snow cones or raspa’o are much more exciting than the ones you remember from the county fair. For starters, they are made to order on a cart with a giant slab of ice. After selecting the size and flavor, the snow cone guy (raspadero) takes a giant cup-shaped blade and scratches off the ice. Once your cup is full, flavor syrup is added, along with the optional condensed milk and malt powder. Normally costing around $1 with all the fixings it’s one of the coolest desserts you’ll find on a hot afternoon!

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A local raspadero  serving up some raspa’o (image courtesy of lotuyo.info)

“The Weird”

Mondongo – If you’re looking for bragging rights, successfully stomaching an average plate of mondongo will earn you some points, even among Panamanians! Made with the tripe (stomach lining) of a cow, mondongo is served in a stew with other vegetables, usually with rice on the side. If cooked slowly and over a long period of time, mondongo is soft and delicious. If time and care is not properly given to the dish (which is usually the case if you’re buying it in a restaurant or small food stand), expect it to be as chewy as shoe leather.

Sopa de Pata de Vaca – Occasionally it’s nice to have food that puts a little hair on your chest, so to speak. In Panama, that dish would be sopa de pata de vaca or cow foot soup. It is, as you guessed it, soup flavored with the boiled hoof of a cow. While honestly, it is not bad tasting (especially with a little hot sauce thrown in!), the weird factor is obvious in that their is a cow hoof in your bowl of soup. However if you want locals to think you’re bellaco or the real deal, then dig in!

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A pot of mondongo (image courtesy of cocinerita.com)

Whether you’re willing to go in blindly and try everything that’s served to you, or you decide to hit up the TGIFridays and play it safe, the great thing about Panamanian cuisine is that there is something for literally everyone! Buen provecho!