Panama City brings the world’s flavors to its tables


The New York Times

One hundred years after the opening of the Panama Canal — which continues to bring in immigrants of different ethnicities whose foods dominate Panama City’s culinary scene — a new Panamanian cuisine is emerging, one that looks inward while embracing its diversity.

Panama City, admittedly, has very few original dishes. You are more likely to dine on spanakopita or chow mein than saus, pickled pig’s feet or the chicken stew called sancocho. That’s changing. Everywhere you look, ambitious young chefs and entrepreneurs are adapting local ingredients to global trends, ranging from Southern barbecue to Japanese-Peruvian fusion.

The movement is being pushed along by Panama Gastronomica, an annual event since 2010 that brings in foreign chefs to Panama City to lecture culinary students. The late August conference is set within a larger, public festival that showcases Panamanian restaurants and products, ranging from food trucks like La Tapa de Coco selling Afro-Panamanian dishes to Proyecto Paila, a forward-thinking culinary collective, selling hot sauces made from the native ají chombo pepper.

“We have all the elements to inspire us: products, a beautiful country with history, a group of restless chefs from diverse backgrounds,” said Elena Hernández, president of Panama Gastronomica, who runs a cooking school. “It’s a historical moment in which cuisine has become very important.”

The Spanish chef Andrés Madrigal once helmed various Madrid restaurants such as Balzac and Alboroque. Last August, he opened Madrigal (Avenida A at Calle Fifth Oeste; 507-211-1956) in a beautifully renovated two-level building in the Casco Viejo historic district. Surprisingly 90 percent of the ingredients are Panamanian, like the little-known root vegetable otoe, but he’s putting his own spin on them, like creating an inverse cheese tart inspired by the Valle de Antón, a town in the crater of an inactive volcano ($8), with chocolate crumbles standing in for volcanic soil that’s topped with edible flowers.

At Humo (Calle 70 Este, at Avenida 5C Sur; 507-203-7313; in the San Francisco neighborhood, the owner and the executive chef Mario Castrellón adapts American barbecue to Panamanian ingredients. You'll find brisket that has been smoked with nance wood ($17) and farm-raised octopus with sugar cane syrup ($11).

Much of the produce comes from Castrellón’s 4-year-old restaurant Maito (Calle 50E and Calle 79E; 507-391-4657; nearby, which has an organic garden of more than 1,000 square feet, growing culantro, ají chombo, ñame (a root vegetable) and micro sprouts.

The restaurant offers 10-course-tasting menus ($50) reflecting the history of the canal, incorporating the ethnicities involved in its creation and the plants and animals around it, in dishes like Ta-Bien, a banana-leaf-wrapped Afro-Antillean seafood stew-filled tamal, and wonton soup flavored with achiote.

“All of the people that passed through left us with a bit of their culture,” Castrellón said. “The Chinese gave us bistec picado. Antilleans gave us our tasty octopus with coconut. The Spanish our sancochado.”

Read more Latin American & Caribbean Travel stories from the Miami Herald

Some of the best food in Puerto Rico can be bought from roadside vendors like this one selling pinchos (grilled meat kabobs) and empanadillas (fried meat turnovers) beneath a Flamboyan tree.

    Quick trips: Puerto Rico

    Surfing beckons visitors to Rincon

    When the World Surfing competition came to Puerto Rico in 1968, Rincon wasn’t even a dot on most maps of the island. But that November, competitive surfers from around the world descended on the tiny west coast town, along with film crews for ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports, which was covering the sport for the first time.

Passengers on the Bimini SuperFast will be able to disembark directly onto North Bimini Island with the completion of a new pier by Resorts World Bimini.

    Genting steps up its ferry service to Bimini

    Resorts World Bimini has completed construction of a pier near its resort where guests on the ferry from Miami will be able to disembark directly onto North Bimini Island and spend more time there, the company announced Thursday. The ferry will start using the new pier Sept. 18.

A detail of the carving on one of the ancient temples at Palenque.


    At last, a soaring look at Palenque’s Mayan ruins

    From seat 7A, I look down to see miles of dense rain forest blanketing the ground below me. I’m 10,000 feet above the Mexican state of Chiapas, coming in for a landing at Palenque, where an ancient Mesoamerican city flourished for five centuries, until its Mayan inhabitants mysteriously abandoned it, leaving their temples, homes and palaces to be reclaimed by the encroaching forest, not to be rediscovered for nearly 900 years.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category