Panama City brings the world’s flavors to its tables

03/27/2014 12:00 AM

03/26/2014 2:57 PM

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.”

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