Panamanian food is quietly undergoing a revolution. For the last 10 years, chefs like the much-lauded Charlie Collins, Mario Castrellon and Alfonso de la Espriella have been working tirelessly to change the way Panamanian food is perceived and consumed. This is a cuisine that seamlessly fuses Afro-Caribbean, Spanish, French, Asian, American and indigenous culinary traditions into a delicious melting pot that reflects the climate and geography of this land-bridge between two continents. And it’s a cuisine that local chefs are working hard to present to locals and visitors alike with the kind of pride it deserves.
If you’re looking to put Panama on the plate the next time you visit Panama City and its surroundings, here are some must-tries for the culinary wanderer:
- Chef/Owner: Mario Castrellon
Philosophy: “We’ve had an ongoing fascination with Spanish food here, Italian, French, Japanese and so on. It’s time to put the focus back on Panama,” explains one of the city’s most talented and impassioned local chefs, Mario Castrellon.
Don’t Miss Dishes: At Maito, there’s an updated take on tasajo- a salted, smoked then fried piece of steak that in this case is shredded like pulled pork and served atop Caribbean fry bread called hojaldra. A dainty fried Cornish hen’s egg crowns the smoky amuse. One of the table’s favourites is the intriguing “cheesecake” dessert made with local vegetable isinglass; a seaweed that’s usually blended with milk and spices and consumed as a drink by those of Afro-Antillean roots. Cinnamon, sugar, and ginger combine to produce a light, not-too-sweet intriguing cheesecake topped with a strawberry compote, that we all swore was made with yoghurt!
Panamonte Inn– Boquete, Panama
- Executive Chef: Charlie Collins– the “go-to” chef for the last three Panamanian presidents and cook for celebs ranging from Sean Connery to political figures like George W. Bush.
Philosophy: “We were raised to believe that everything imported was of better quality than what we had in our country. This is one of the reasons why you see so much American cuisine influencing us in Panama, but that’s changing. We know better now.” says Collins
Don’t Miss Dish: Boquete river trout filets with a watercress salsa over young corn gnocchi and Panamanian sofrito. Bonus points for forging close ties with nearby, organic farmers, fishermen and food producers who provide Collins with pristine ingredients.
La Trona- Panama City- Calle 48, Edificio La Trona – Bella Vista – Panamá
- Chef: Alfonso de la Espriella
Philosophy: He makes the kind of food he’d like to eat, in Spanish that’s known as “cocina de autor.” After working abroad with greats like Laurent Tourondel, de la Espriella has concluded that his culinary mantra is firmly rooted in the “less is more” camp.
Don’t Miss Dish: Locally caught yellow fin tuna that gets its heat from the country’s well-loved aji chombo, or chombo chilie. Seared on the outside only and sliced so that its fleshy, pink exterior shines like jewels, chef crusts the fish with the aji and serves it with local zapayo- a type of pumpkin or squash.
By: Mary Luz Mejia