Posted by: gamboa | February 8, 2011

Panamanian Video Recipes, Pamamania Food History


You can ACCESS the Video Recipes by clicking on the above category tabs.

By population Panama is the smallest Spanish-speaking country in Latin America encompassing 30,000 square miles of surface area, roughly the size of South Carolina, and has 3 million citizens about the same number as Chicago, Illinois. The width of Panama ranges from 48 to 118 miles  bordered by two separate oceans each with it’s own aquatic pantry meaning that fish from one coast may not be populating  the other.  About 70% of the population is mestizo, a mix of the local Indian and European, with African, Chinese, East Indian and Sephardic veins flowing through the rest of the population and recently one local paper claimed that 40% of the republics citizens have some Chinese genes. More than half the republics population lives in urban areas with an annual per capita median income of $4600 dollars, 40% of the population lives in poverty and 9% on less than a dollar a day. One fifth are Rabi Blanco, a Panamanian euphemism for white butts/pale cheeks or upper class and 40% are considered “middle class” because they own a car. A substantial number of the poor are original peoples living on Comarcas, something like US reservations, and the others subsistence farmers or day labors from the interior communities. In comparison the 2005 annual per capital income of Beijing was $2,263,  Vietnam $600, Mexico $11,647 and the US 43k  while some 2.7 billion others on the planet live on less than $2.00 a day or $730 a year.

Any examination of Panamanian cuisine and recipes must include the foods of the surrounding West Indies and Caribbean coast as well as that of the pre-Columbian inhabitants who developed the bases for the hybrid cuisines of lower America.  Boundaries set by modern cartographers or nation builders really have little to do with the influence of these continually evolving foodways. The  polygloted population of the nineteen Caribbean Islands combined, not including Cuba, is about 11 million and Central Americas seven countries are home to 42 million for a composite total of 53 million. In comparison California has a population of 38 million and only “one” cuisine so you can see the difficulty of  defining or codifying the foodways of  these 26 small countries into any succinct format. Pre Colombian  peoples  known as the Caribs, Arawaks, Taino, Olmecs, Incas and Aztecs were the progenitors of today’s Caribbean diet that fused with inputs from Spain, England, Holland, France, Portugal, Africa, China, India and finally the US. Historically some of the oldest samples of corn, chilies and yams in the Americas, dated about 8000 years ago, come from a rock shelter called the Ladrones Cave in Panama although the jury is still deliberating as to whether or they were gathered or cultivated. The indigenous peoples of the area were thought to have been  wiped out  by Spanish aggression, native warfare or imported disease but new investigations prove that these genetic lines continue to exist in  the larger post Colombian gene pool.

The Caribbean coast has a higher population of English speakers then the Pacific due to the early escapes or migrations of slave and indentured labor from the English-speaking West Indies. In fact when the Americans took over the building of the canal the governor of Jamaica prohibited migrating to Panama because it had caused such a severe local labor shortage during the French attempt. So the US recruited 20,000 workers from Barbados for the canal and they further helped to imprint the local cuisine with spicy chilies, okra, fou fou, challoos and corned beef. Although the guide books might tell you Spanish is spoken here they don’t tell you it’s Caribbean Spanish that has is own patois and slang and the euphemisms for any one cultivar,  meat cut or construct can differ from one coast or border to the next.   The early Spanish brought Peruvian silver to Panama City and then hauled it across the isthmus via the Camino de Cruzes to Portobello where it and other valuable assets were shipped to Spain on bi-yearly treasure fleets until Caribbean pirates made the route unprofitable and the direction was changed to round the Cape of Good Hope, South America.  Early Panama had a lot of beefs and the meat stayed here, no refrigeration, while the hides were shipped to Spain for tanning. During the colonial period, until the grasslands were exhausted, large cattle herds allowed Panamanians to become the largest consumers of  beef in Latin America and they  learned to cook and consume the whole cow.

                              SO WHERE’S THE BEEF?

What’s up with Panamanian Beef? I hear English-speaking visitors and expatriates bemoaning the flavor and toughness of the local product and they’re absolutely right but why? The history of beef in Central America is distinctly different from that of the rest of the continent because of the area’s tropical environment.  Columbus, on his second voyage to Hispaniola now known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti,  brought live stock, including pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, pigeons and beefs to the new world. On his third and fourth trips, as was the custom, he dropped livestock on most of the visited islands for future provisioning before he finally reached Panama 10 years after his first landfall. The original beefs from Europe were Bos Taurus, or humpless cows, the genetic bases for our modern Western breeds. Later African slaves, along with their cattle breed called Bos Indicus, were imported as a labor force to the newly developed European agricultural holdings.  This humped variety, also called Cebu or Zebu, eventually evolved into the Brahman in the US and the Criollo or Indo-Brazil in South and Central America.  These criollo cattle of Latin America evolved into their own archetypes that were better suited to the tropical climate since they originated in the like environments of Africa and India and soon replaced the European stock.

The tropical adaptability of the Brahman is manifold and it’s short and reflective coat and black skin combine to keep out the sun’s tissue damaging rays.  The loose folds of it’s skin provide greater surface areas for cooling, that along with the animals sweat, also helps to repel insects and parasites. Genetically these beefs have developed the ability to thrive on inadequate food supplies, in varying weather extremes while still displaying high fertility rates and a high tolerance to the endemic tropical diseases that quickly eliminated the Island European varieties. Livestock holdings in Panama are very small local ranchers who possess few husbandry techniques and  little herd management skill. Natural pasturage coarse and low in nutrition and these unamended soils are further aggravated by droughts or floods. Mineral deficiencies, disease and intestinal parasites are common among small herds and natural insemination with no breeding guidelines are the norm. In fact most of the time these local beefs exist in an almost feral state foraging for themselves which actually produces a healthier albeit much tougher product.

But that’s not the complete answer, even though environment and genetics certainly affect the musculature of the meat, the causative difference between Panamanian and North American beef occurs at the feed lot.  US feed lots purchase 600 pound calves then fatten them up with appetite stimulants and high protein diets until they double in size and head for the abattoir. Feed lots proffer a diet of growth hormones, ground soybeans and corn, meat and bone meal, silage for roughage, and the remains of distiller’s processes in addition to exanthan gum, yeast cultures and minerals both organic and manufactured. North Americans want their beefs Rubenesque and their women skinny while in  Panama the women are a bit rounder and the beefs thinner. In the US meat of this “quality” would be graded commercial or standard at best. This lack of marbling and feed additives tends to make the beef here a bit toothier explaining why much of Panama’s meat is long stewed, often using a pressure cooker,  as the next two constructs will exemplify.


Simply put this Panamanian recipe is beef cut in pieces and stewed with peppers and onions. The “steak” is usually an extremely tough muscle cut something we might call Swiss, minute or cube steak except in this case it hasn’t been run through a mechanized swisser to tenderize and takes a long time to cook. The dish is prevalent and you’ll find it sold in Panamanian markets as “steak picado” and occasionally see it featured as steak entero on menus which is simply a braised Swiss steak.  Onions and peppers are usually added and occasionally a tomato product and the construct is then stewed and served for breakfast along with some fried bread or a Panamanian tortilla and perhaps sprinkled with farmers cheese making a nice inexpensive repast. The use of top round or flank steak will decrease the cooking time and tooth of the dish and, as is the case with many indigenous preparations, a pinch of unrefined sugar is often added to sweeten the pot along with a goodly splash of “English” aka Worcestershire sauce. This is a very maudlin recipe but was the one dish I spoke about to others returning from my first trip to Panama because it was served everywhere and quite cheap like $3.

            1 pound Swiss, chuck or top round cut into strips

            1 teaspoon achiote powder or paste

            1 teaspoon garlic, minced

            1 large yellow onion, sliced

            1 large green pepper, or Anaheim or Fresno chilies, de-seeded and sliced

            1 medium tomato, diced or 2 ounces of tomato product

            1 cup stock, or granulated base fortified water

  1. Dredge the beef in seasoned flour
  2. Saute till along with the achiote till lightly browned
  3. Add garlic, onion, peppers and tomato
  4. Stir well and saute till vegetables are soft adding more oil if necessary
  5. Add stock, reduce heat to a simmer, cover cook till tender


This construct’s naming myth tells us about a man who learns his long absent family is coming to visit. As is the custom he hopes to feed them when they arrive but his pantry is empty and  in desperation he gathers some of his old clothes from the closet and tosses them into the cooking pot. His act was so filled with familial love that  these remnants of cloth were transformed into something truly delicious. This well-known Latin rendition of pot roast probably morphed from the dried/salted beef known as cecina or  tasajo  since when either is boiled and  shredded the result does look like old clothes or fabric. Basically you’re making boiled beef, or a sort of carnitas and you could use pork, lamb  venison, or iguana. After the selected cut has been thoroughly cooked and cooled, you shred or “jerk” the meat by hand and then combine it with the vegetables, herbs and spices to make this well-known dish. I suggest you use beef chuck for the meat but you could use a more expensive but less flavorful steak cut if you wish. Again be open as to how you embellish, use coconut milk instead of stock, toss in gandules or spice it up with a few chilies or a tablespoon of fresh green {not chillies} pepper.

2 pounds flank, skirt or chuck steak

Equal parts  carrot, onion and celery, about 6 ounces each, chopped coarsely

1 tablespoon fresh, or 1 teaspoon dried, oregano

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

8 bay leaves

Stock or base fortified water to cover

  1. In a large pot combine the meat, vegetables, spices and stock
  2. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer till very tender
  3. Remove from fire, cool to room temperature
  4. Remove meat then pull apart by hand, refrigerate
  5. Strain the brazing stock  reserving the  strained vegetables
  6. Process the vegetables and return to the stock, then reduce and refrigerate

You can braise the meat a day ahead of your production or on the same day if wished, in either case, it’s easiest to shred the meat shortly after it’s been cooked while still somewhat warm. The next step is to saute the following ingredients and then add the meat and the vegetable thickened brazing liquid. This thickening technique is one you can use with other recipes since Panamanians don’t seem to use liaisons to thicken their constructs although they sometimes mush up a corm or root to give their sauces body. In completing the construct you can add some citrus juice and unrefined sugar, known as raspadura, which seems to appear in almost every Panamanian recipe stated or not.

1 cup sliced onion or whites of leek

1 cup sweet peppers sliced, your choice; bells, wax, jarred cherry or pepperoncini

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

1 can peeled pear tomatoes and their juice

All the braised shredded meat

2 cups vegetable thicken braising stock

To taste granulated base and freshly ground black pepper


  1. Saute the onions, pepper and garlic till limp
  2. Add the tomatoes, meat and vegetable thickened stock
  3. Simmer to the desired consistency
  4. Adjust seasoning with granulated base, pepper, citrus and sugar




Rice has been around for at least 6000 years and is one of the major caloric sources for over half the world.  It is believed to have been developed as a crop concurrently in India and China and then spread to the rest of the world. Rice was first brought to Iberia by the conquering Moors in the eighth Century. The Portuguese collected it along with African slaves from Gambia in the fifteenth century and brought both to Vera Cruz, Brazil in the early sixteenth with the Spanish introducing it to Central and South America about the same time. Rice is the primary staple for about 1/3 of the globe’s population who obtain 75% of their total calories from the grain.  Average annual Asian consumption hovers around 300 lbs while Panamanians weigh in at 200 lbs which sounds like a lot but remember that rice increases by a factor of 3 when cooked so we’re talking about 900 and 600 pounds respectively of cooked grain!  Rice is the primary food source for the majority of this country so when the price of the commodity rises it severely affects the lower economic tiers and becomes a national crisis. Panama has to import 25% of its domestic needs and many of the subsistence growers fear that approval of any free trade agreements  with the US, where rice is heavily subsidized, will undercut the local market and demolish their livelihood. There are 80K rice growers in Central America employing some 1.5 million workers.

The number of ingredients in this rice casserole often intimidates first timers but it shouldn’t because it’s really just a rustic dish that is thrown together for a celebration usually held outside and cooked over an open fire to pick up the smoky taste. Although most think of the construct as a seafood dish the antiquarian version had only eels, snails, rabbit, duck, game birds, vegetables, olive oil and saffron and was introduced by the moors to Spain. Seafood didn’t appear until the party moved to the beach and some claim you can’t mix surf and turf.   These same purists, and there are many in Panama, also claim that a correct Paella has to be cooked in a wide bottomed pan called a patella or paellera, you’ll see them all over Latin America, over wood coals to obtain the proper texture of the rice. The melange of ingredients is then plopped on the table for all to share and gush over.  Paella traditionally starts with a sofrito, the Spanish equivalent of a mirepoix with some pork fat, that you sauté the other ingredients in.  After the Moors left Spain in the 14th century the dish became Lenten fare made with the ubiquitous salted cod and gradually morphed into the party dish so popular in Latin America today. Its roots, like most peasant food, lie in scarcity and therefore you can put just about anything in your formula. In Panama we’re fortunate to have authentic imported Spanish sausage and some really fresh seafood thanks to the Humboldt current for our Paella. Paella is a  dish of  infinite variety utilizing whatever’s on hand like the desert version using coconut milk, bananas and fruit as we’ll make today. Arborio or short grain rice is usually used but any will do even  jasmine or Basmati and you could even use brown if you like. You can also use any seafood you like fresh, frozen or canned although it’s best to mix it up between your sources.


2 bone in chicken thighs or ½ pound  breast meat or a few quail

            4 ounces thinly sliced Spanish chorizo, pepperoni or other sausage

            2 tablespoons garlic minced

            12 ounces well washed arborio  or regular rice

            4 ounces, store-bought, roasted red, wax or spicy peppers diced

            4 ounces each green beans julienned and frozen green peas

            4 ounces diced leek or yellow/red onion chopped      

            1 pinch dried saffron or 1/2 teaspoon achiote paste/powder

            8 ounces shelled prawns or firm white fish in 2”dice

            1 can drained chopped clams including the juice

            1 small can peeled tomatoes including the juice        

            1 cup chicken or fish stock, using granulated base if necessary

            1 teaspoon fresh rosemary and 2 ounces Pernod optional

  1. Using a frying or paella pan sauté the chicken till browned
  2. Add the sausage, garlic, rice saute for five minutes
  3. Add the vegetables, saffron or achiote powder mix well
  4. Add all the seafood and  stir to incorporate
  5. Add  stock, tomatoes, rosemary and Pernod, simmer for 5 minutes
  6. Cover, reduce heat to simmer or place in 350 oven till rice is soft
  7. Adjust seasoning with granulated base and ground black pepper
  8. Serve with lime wedges, recaito or alcaparrado sauce and  paprika


             2 ounces tocino ahumando-smoked bacon finely diced

            1 rabbit cut 8 optional

            1 duck purchased from the Chinese grocery store, ask them to cut it

            8 ounces pork or beef tasajo/cecina (cured/dried meat) processed

            2 tablespoons each minced garlic, and fresh rosemary

            ½ package fresh saffron or 1 teaspoon achoite powder

            12 ounces washed rice

            1 package, 10 ounces, frozen calamari rings

            8 ounces fresh okra sliced into rounds

            1 can gandul, black-eyed or pigeon peas or 12 ounces freshly cooked

            1 jar alcaparrado (olive, caper, pimento condiment) chopped

            4 ounces minced sun-dried tomatoes

            3 cups homemade chicken stock or water with granulated chicken base


  1. Wash the duck well since the cavity will be covered with five spice powder, reserve
  2. Sauté the tocino/smoked bacon until rendered and slightly brown
  3. Add the rabbit and brown, then the duck, tasajo, garlic & rosemary stir, cook 5 minutes
  4. Remove most of the meat then add the saffron or achoite and rice, saute 5 minutes
  5. Add all the remaining ingredients including the stock, bring to a boil
  6. Cover reduce heat and simmer or place in 350 oven till done
  7. Adjust seasonings with fresh black pepper, granulated base & smoked paprika


            3 large green bananas, peeled and cut into rounds

            2 apples,  2 pears, peeled, sliced and reserved in acidified water (lime juice)

            12 ounces sticky rice soaked over night in water to cover

            3 ounces each dried mango, papaya, and orange rind

            ½ teaspoon each ground cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice

            6 ounces unrefined local sugar, raspadura, panela-piloncilla

            2 cans coconut or condensed milk


  1. Combine the coconut milk, mango, papaya, orange rind and sugar is a sauce pot
  2. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg,  allspice and sugar, simmer for 5 minutes
  3. Remove from heat and let steep
  4. Saute the sliced bananas in a small amount of oil or butter till just soft
  5. Drain the apples and pears then add to the bananas, cook till just warm
  6. Add the drained sticky rice and the coconut milk infusion, bring to a boil
  7. Lower heat and simmer till done or place in oven and bake
  8. Serve chilled mango crème fraiche or warm with ice cream


Combine 8 ounces whipping cream, (creama de batir) and 2 tablespoons sour cream, yogurt or lemon juice.  Let stand at room temperature 24 hours till thickened then combine with mango or other fruit jam, sugar and maybe a little rum to taste and serve as a topping on the dessert paella. You could also add so processed roasted pepper, without the sweet stuff, and garlic for savory paellas.


Panamanian cuisine is a Creole fusion of native produce and Spanish protein with a mélange of other cultural influences.  The country’s geographical isolation and natural fauna made cultural and trade interaction difficult so many local variations exist even in this small republic. The cuisine of the Caribbean coast has a strong African patois, much spicier and more ethically diverse then the Pacific side, due to its frequent exposure to the varied cultural and culinary imports brought by early slave, indentured and immigrant labor forces from the West Indies  The following sauces or table condiments are used like Mexican salsa or pesto, each diner helps himself or the cook doses it in the kitchen.  You can increase the heat of the spice by adding some piquant peppers which is how it’s done on the Caribbean side and if you add vinegar you’ll have a nice vinaigrette dressing or signature wet adobo. These condiments add some zest to what otherwise is a rather bland national diet and, in the households that can afford them, are widespread amongst Panamanian foodies.


To infuse the olive oil with annatto seeds just toast the seeds in a pan, add the oil and heat then let steep at room temperature.  You can also use achiote powder in the oil or just add paste to the preparation. You can also add some Spanish cured (brined) bacon that looks like pancetta or substitute good smoked Panamanian bacon.  This condiment with out the meat is available in the market look for Goya brand.

            4 ounces olive oil 

            1 tablespoon achiote paste or a generous pinch of dried saffron

            3 roasted red, 4 Anaheim, or 6 pepperoncini/wax peppers seeded

            3 tablespoons minced garlic

            1 bunch culantro leaves

            1 bunch cilantro

            To taste granulated chicken base and fresh ground pepper

  1. Heat olive oil add annatto or saffron to infuse
  2. Place all the ingredients in a cuisinart and process
  3. Adjust seasoning with granulated base and pepper
  4. Refrigerate and use as a table condiment


You can find this condiment in jars from Spain in most Latin markets and then embellish it with herbs and spices just be sure the olives are pitted or you’ll have a hard time processing it.

            8 ounces green olives with brine

            4 ounces pimento

            4 ounces capers with brine

            To taste culantro/cilantro

            3 tablespoons garlic minced

            1 teaspoon achiote paste or minced fresh saffron

            To taste granulated chicken base and ground pepper

            Coarsely chop all, adjust seasoning, refrigerate


The variety is endless and you could “put some up” just as you would pickles if you care to. The relish can be stored for weeks or longer in the refrigerator.  Again the heat can be moderated by the type and amount of peppers you use.  A couple of tablespoons of pickling spice  with whatever else is available can stand in quite well for the listed herbs and spices if they’re not at hand.  The choice vegetables are up to you as is the quantity and if the pickle is too hard just blanch or nuke the offending vegetable before brining.

            4 cups white or apple cider vinegar

            1 cup lime or bitter orange juice

            2 ounces ginger root, sliced

            1 teaspoon allspice berries, pimenta gorda

            1 teaspoon whole cloves

            3” stick cinnamon

            1 ounce local unrefined sugar

            1 tablespoon green peppercorns in brine

            1 tablespoon oregano, less if using the fresh local variety

            3 tablespoons pureed or finely minced culantro

            1 tablespoon granulated chicken base

            1 cup cauliflowettes

            1 cup sliced carrots

            2 cups diced red onion or whites of leek

            1 cup Japanese eggplant

            1 cup diced sweet peppers

            1 cup diced mango

            1 cup diced chayote

            To taste sliced hot chilies, granulated chicken base


  1. Bring the vinegar and lime juice to a boil in a large non reactive pot
  2. Add the next 9 ingredients, or 4 ounces of  pickling spice and sugar
  3. Bring to a boil, add vegetables then remove from heat
  4. Let the pickle cool to room temperature, check for seasoning
  5. Jar or store then refrigerate for weeks


Although this kind of pesto sauce is actually from Argentina it’s used extensively here for steaks and starches. A sauce of this type pops up in many Hispanic menus and accordingly has numerous variations and sometime names

            4 ounces oregano, garlic,  parsley, green onions, culantro red onion,

4 ounces sun-dried tomato or one fresh whole

2 ounces roasted garlic

            4 ounces olive oil or other oil, I use very little

            5 ounces apple cider, red wine or balsamic vinegar

            To Taste cumin, canned Chipotle peppers, granulated chicken base

1.  Place everything is a blender or Cuisinart and process to a paste

2.  Refrigerate for weeks

3.  Use as a sauce and marinade for grilled meats

I use any type of “vinegar” like pickle juice, or that from jarred pepper like pepperoncini for an interesting signature



Learning a new cooking procedure often seems intimidating but not when you put in into the perspective of what you already know.  I remember my grandmother sweating vegetables for her turkey dressing in a little bacon fat just like a Latin American or New Orleans cook would use a sofrito. This flavoring base is used as a first step to cook beans, rice, soups and stews and imparts a distinctive Hispanic taste to what ever you’re making.  Sofrito can be purchased in many Hispanic grocers and you’d keep a jar in the cooler to use as needed.  You can also just make the vegetable portion then add and sweat the protein and combine with the base when you’re ready to use it.

            4 ounces annatto infused olive oil or add 1 teaspoon achiote paste

            1 cup culantro leaves

            2 cups diced red onion

            1 cup diced sweet, roasted red, wax, Italian or wax peppers

            4 ounces sun-dried tomato in oil

            1 tablespoon oregano, thyme, paprika or achiote powder

            To taste Spanish ham, bacon or smoked tocino minced


            1. Process the first eight ingredients into slurry, refrigerate till needed

2. Sweat the ham, bacon or tocino till brown then

3. Add the appropriate amount of  aromatics for whatever you’re making


      4 ounces culantro leaves

      4 ounces broad leaf parsley

      2 tablespoons garlic

      6 ounces wax, banana or pepperoni peppers and maybe a few hot peppers

      4 ounces of green onion-scallions

      juice of two limes

      2 egg yolks

      1 cup olive oil

      2-3 michita, local rolls torn into small pieces


  1. Process the first five vegetables; culantro, parsley, garlic , peppers and onions to paste
  2. Add the lime juice and blend well, then the 2 egg yolks, blend again
  3. SLOWLY add the olive oil, your making mayonnaise, till thickened
  4. Add and process the rolls
  5. Adjust the thickness with a little stock or water, and the seasoning with base
  6. You can fake it by adding everything but the oil and egg to some mayo



Panamanian cuisine is based on scarcity, and like that of other developing nations, usually centers around bland starches. Rice, grains, legumes and various starchy  cultivars are the dietary staples of the Panamanian diet.  These starchy root like staples are called corms or cormels and there are thousands of varieties with thousands of names growing throughout the world. This abundance of varieties makes classifying and naming them very difficult especially when different varieties are planted together and they hybridized producing something  divergent from their originators often evolving in a specific limited geographical location.  They’re all sort of related and so we won’t pay homage to Linnaeus by attempting to lists them all but instead just offer the caveat that you can pretty much substitute one for the other.  Basically all of them, and this included potatoes, plantains and corn, can be used to make tamale-fritter-croquette like constructs with protein, vegetable or dairy products incorporated. They can be dried and milled into flours, sliced and fried as chips, mashed and served like potatoes, used in stews and soups, and when sweetened even made into desserts in a variety of Panamanian recipes.

Basically we’re talking about only four or five identifiable major groups that include Yucca-Cassava-Manioc, Camote-Sweet Potato, Name-Tropical Yam, Taro-Otoe-Malanga, and Papas-Potates. Then there still other starchy items that can be thrown into the mix like Piva-Pejibaye Palm Fruit or the Chayote a rather bland cucumber like gourd-vegetable. But chances are you won’t be eating too many of these unless you’re living in the tropics because many of them don’t travel well.  Just to further confuse you we’ll throw in a few more related names for Otoe like Dasheen, Eeldo, Kalo, Talo, Dado, Dago Angel, Avo, Ma, Yautia, Tannia, Cocoyam, Coco, and Arrowroot just to name a few. The leaves may also be eaten in many cases especially in the Caribbean’s African inspired callaloos.  A cautionary note: some of these guys can cause a slight skin irritation so unless you’re a macho cook like me you should wear gloves when you’re processing the raw YUCCA or OTOE or just enjoy the tingling skin sensation that last about 45 minutes.  Anyway these starchy components are made into fritters called Bunuelos, Empanada, Pasties, Tamales, Mofongo, Tortillas, Carimanolas, Bollas and several others then fried, baked or steamed into hand held food transporters. Unfortunately they all look and taste pretty much the same to the novice eye and tongue no matter what Panamanian recipe you’re preparing.

When the Spanish arrived they brought few vegetables, since their diet back home  included few at the time, and this is reflected in today’s Panamanian diet.  And contrary to what you may think a lot of the cultivars we know  don’t grow well in the tropics that has no seasons where there’s little nutrient for anything but the native plants and trees in the rain forest.  So at our local farmers market in El Valle de Anton we find, small cauliflowers, Japanese eggplant, several types of squash, mustard greens, amaranth,  tomatoes, garlic, ginger, green and round onions, with broccoli and cabbage making an occasional appearance.  There are some other vegetables but the locals don’t seem to know that you can eat cactus paddles, luffa gourds, and banana blossoms. Mangoes, papaya, nectarines, limes, oranges, bananas, and grapefruits are also components of the Panamanian recipe file plus well over a hundred mystery fruits you’ll probably never see or eat.  Anyway a cultivar or dish can change names from one province to another even in a small country like Panama and this only complicates the codification process. Much of what’s eaten on the Caribbean side is not eaten on the Pacific side so the cuisine of Panama has more “regional” variations then countries 5 times its size.

Panamanian recipes draw a thin line between starch, meat, vegetables and fruits, they’re often amalgamated into one dish,  and since the average Panamanian ingests much more fruit then vegetables this category may seem to meander a bit. Many of the following Panamanian recipes inhabit “the I don’t know zone” so the decision’s up to you.  Panamanians don’t have scheduled meal formats, unless their in the city,  and tend to eat what’s available whenever their hungry.  We’ll start with the Empanada that’s also called a Pattie on the Caribbean side, a Cornish pasty in England, a turnover in the States, a Samosa in India or a Simbusak in the Arab world which can be baked, fried or even steamed when using corn or grain as a wrapper. The most prevalent wrapper is a savory pie crust, but you can use hojaldre dough, frozen pie shells, pie dough mix, puff paste dough, masa dough, polenta, egg roll wrappers, refrigerate roll dough and I’ve even had instant mashed potato empanadas. You could  use canned corned beef hash,  a duck from one of the numerous Chinese markets or a rotisseried chicken from the local deli.

The quantifier is the usual half-moon shape, although you can fashion triangular ones, stuffed with some filling either sweet or savory no matter what it’s enclosed in. There are numerous examples of this hand-held food conveyance in scores of different cultures appearing in many different sizes and identified by scores of  different names. Just remember that each and every one is just like a hot pocket back home and in reality you could use oatmeal, bran cereal, sticky rice or even cream of wheat as a wrapper. Much like the envelope the filling also has a myriad number of possible choices both savory and sweet you can use fruit, vegetables, tofu, beef, chicken or seafood just remember if your making your own dough throw in something that will compliment the filling, candied fruit, herbs, or vegetables.  It’s said that the empanada originated in Spanish Galicia and may have been introduced by Sephardic Jews originally from Babylonia who traveled with the Moors during their occupation of Iberia. During the latter part of the 19th century Argentina and Uruguay where the world’s largest produces of corned beef and it became a common component in the Latin America diet finding it’s way into many an empanada since it was “tinned” and required no refrigeration


This basic meat recipe when it contains both raisins, capers, olives and some derivation of sofrito  is called a Picadillo although the Panamanian version  often has hard-cooked eggs added to the filling.  You can use pork, ground beef, minced chicken or turkey for this construct although only the beef may be available in the less urban areas all of the other ingredients shouldn’t be a problem.

            1 pound ground protein or shredded corned beef

            ½ cup each minced onion and sweet pepper fresh or jarred

            2 ounces raisins, sultanas or currants

            1 small jar store-bought alcaparrado, chopped

            ½ teaspoon each oregano and thyme

            2 ounces sliced green onions

            to taste minced hot chili, cayenne or salsa piquante

            1 can Italian tomatoes with juice or 2 fresh diced with  2 tablespoons paste

            black pepper and granulated beef or chicken base

            2 hard-cooked eggs sliced or 8 hard-cooked quail eggs from the market

  1. Saute protein in olive oil till browned
  2. Add the other ingredients except black pepper and base, simmer 15 minutes
  3. Remove from heat adjust seasonings with pepper and base
  4. Gently fold in eggs and chill until needed, quail eggs are welcomed by locals


Oh, I’m so confused what should I use to wrap my empanada?  Well that’s really a question of availability, time constraints and technical expertise so let’s recap.  This Panamanian recipe calls for a savory pie crust like dough, unless your filling is sweet,  that’s about a ¼ “ thick when baked so if you follow the model then you can either make your own crust, purchase a dry mix, use prerolled uncooked hojaldres resized as needed, or utilize frozen pie crust dough or puff paste- phyllo sheets, or egg roll wrappers or even refrigerated biscuit/roll dough. Coverings can also be made of freshly processed corn, fresh yucca, yucca flour or frozen prepared empanada dough available in Hispanic markets. In any case you’ll need to roll or lay the product out in a  circle then place an appropriate amount on filling on one half of the circle, pinch or scallop with a fork to seal and egg wash the tops if you’re using flour dough.  You will then bake, fry, steam or boil to finish your entrée or appetizers sized empanada.

If you prefer using a corn wrapper for your empanada a variety of constructs are also available so let’s briefly discuss them so you can make a choice.  First you could use plain corn meal or packaged masa mix that you would prepare like breakfast gruel using meat or fish stock instead of water.  Or you could purchase the hulled and dried corn kernels, you may have seen in the market, which are soaked and then ground using a hand grinder like your grandmother may have used.  This product would then be made into a gruel, cooled till it’s malleable, just as the masa or corn meal would be, and then shaped into round disks into which you would enclose the prepared stuffing in a half circle. This construct would then be either deep or shallow fried, baked or steamed somewhat like a tamale. Some may argue that this empanada is no more than a misshapen-misguided cigar-shaped carimanola it’s your call.


I prefer using boneless rib eye or top round steak in this construct (Bistec Costilla or Pierna) which I pound quite thin then marinade in achiote paste and sour orange juice (Naranja Agria) before barbecuing and dicing or shredding  for various filling. If you’re making this in Panama be sure to braise the meat till its tender whether or not you choose to barbecue it since (See: WHERE’S THE BEEF) our meat from the local humped steer is tougher then that offered in the old country or alternatively use fillet selling for about $4 a pound in the urban markets. Again the choice of wrapper is up to your, your resources and your pantry and when I prepare these, or most any other empanadas, I always dust the ingredients with a few tablespoons of flour to form a light sauce. I also really like to make these using just good smoked bacon or Spanish chorizo.

1 pound paillarded, marinated and barbecued beef steaks

1 cup minced onion, leek or scallion

1 small can Italian tomatoes including juice or ½ cup diced fresh

1 cup diced sweet pepper, your choice fresh or jarred

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 cup diced small potato cubes, nuked until just barely firm

1 cup frozen or 2 freshly chopped spinach, mustard, amaranth-Chinese spinach-callaloo greens

4 ounces crushed local cashews, pan roasted

1 package crumbled local white cheese, Queso Blanco or Spanish Manchego

To taste minced fresh hot chili or canned chipotle (smoked jalapeños) peppers

Granulated beef base and fresh ground black pepper

  1. Saute the floured diced or shredded beef in olive oil
  2. Add the onions, tomatoes,  peppers, garlic, potato, greens and cashews saute 10 minutes
  3. Remove from heat and add the crumbled queso blanco or Manchego cheese
  4. Adjust seasoning with beef base, ground black pepper and chipotle peppers.
  5. Fill your selected wrapper and bake, saute or steam depending on the choice of envelope


These starchy cousins of the banana are a fruit, and like their cousins not indigenous to the New World, are known by many names in many cultures around the world.  Both bananas and plantains probably come from Indonesia and it is thought they reached the Americas in the early sixteenth century. Some think they arrived earlier since they seem to have spread at an amazing rate for having only arrived in 1516 and are a food staple throughout the American tropics. They along with their cousins and have come to be an archetypical symbol for Central America “Banana Republics” one that help shape national borders and American political policies in the late nineteenth century. Plantains can be eaten, green/unripe, yellow/turning ripe or black/way ripe, each state requiring different handling and cooking techniques. Hard green bananas can often be substituted for green plantains and the two are often combined in various recipes. Plantains are baked, broiled, pureed, fried and shredded in local recipes and often the method for preparation determines the name of the finished product. The simple fried version  is as popular in the lower Americas as the potato chip is in the US but they’re usually served soon after they are cooked as a snack or meal accompaniment.


They can be cut thin or thick, in rounds or at an angle or even lengthwise and the cooking oil could be vegetable, peanut, lard, palm or beef suet. Some will favor them with a seasoning mix like adobo or sazon, others shredded queso fresco and they can even be used as croutons in a salad.  The names change with the shape but here just remember that when your aunt Lupe from Guatemala makes them they might not have the same name your uncle Tito from Nicaragua gives them. Here are a number of Panamanian recipe variations for plantains.

Plantanitos: Single fried plantain chip

Patacones/Tostones:  Twice cooked plantains that you deep fry till golden then remove and smash with your hand, a rock or in a wooden press called a tostonera that will either produce a flattened or basket Pionono/Canasta shape for stuffing depending on the press you’re using. Requires a green hard plantain and that’s why you press it after the first fry and then refry. Eat these with a spritz of fresh lime juice and perhaps a little cayenne pepper. HERE’S A VIDEO RECIPE

Chifles: Thinly sliced chips much like potato chips now being packaged in Latin America and also made out of yucca/cassava.  These  potato like chips have an infinite number of flavoring possibilities

Plantano Maduro: Ripe, spears fried until they caramelize or sprinkle with sugar to speed and enhance the process

Platanos Tentacion: Baked green plantains that are candied using the local sugar and sometimes rum, allspice, cinnamon and vanilla or fruit for the “temptation”. Some recipes use juice or even soft drinks like Coke or orange soda for their secret ingredient.

Tirades: Fried in length way slices

Canoas: Full length, halved then stuffed either sweet or savory


Plantains are bananas but unless they’re really ripe, called maduro, they’re rarely eaten raw and must be cooked much like a potato.  When the Spanish  first saw the fruit producing tree it resembled the plane tree from back home hence the name plátano.  Platanos are really hard to peel unless they’re cooked or you’re willing to struggle.   To cook cut the ends off the fruit then slit the skin lengthwise from end to end,  place in a hot oven for about 15, remove and cool and the peel is easy to remove or  nuke them in the microwave till they’re pliable.  This construct also calls for roasted peppers and you certainly can use the roasted red variety out of the jar or fire roast your own over an open burner on the stove.  Just literally burn the skin on the pepper rotating to get all sides then wrap in a towel or plastic wrap for about 5 minutes to steam the skins off, remove the seeds and chop.


2 cups roasted plantain flesh and one peeled banana

1 tablespoon chipotle peppers and 2 tablespoons green peppercorns processed

4 ounces fire roasted chilies cut into strips

1 cup smashed black beans, gandul/black-eyed peas or garbanzos, fresh or canned

½ cup whites of leek diced

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons fresh oregano or 1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 package local queso blanco or cheese of your choice, crumbled

To taste granulated chicken base or soy sauce and perhaps more chilies


  1. Lightly process the peeled plantains and banana
  2. Combine this masa with the processed chipotle and peppercorns
  3. Combine the rest of the ingredients, adjust seasonings with granulated base, reserve
  4. Divide the chilled plantain mix into 4 equal portions
  5. Using your hands shape the mix on plastic wrap, into a circle
  6. Fill the lower half of each circle with a portion of the reserved filling
  7. Using the plastic wrap fold the masa over the bean mix and seal
  8. Saute the empanadas in olive oil till browned




From the Caribbean side using pastry dough with the perquisite curry powder.  The recipe calls for ground beef but you could easily use salted/corned beef or, pork or beef cecina, rotisseried  chicken or for that matter canned tuna or salmon.  You’ll need to make your own pastry envelope if you want the curried infused variety although could utilize mix or frozen dough by adding or dusting the sheets with curry powder. The dough formula presented here can be made by hand or in food processor  just be sure to let it relax in the refrigerator for at least an hour or overnight.

General Purpose Empanada Dough

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon curry powder

Pinch of cayenne or hot red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon of granulated chicken base

4 ounces shortening, butter, or lard

2 to 3 ounces ice water


1. Combine and mix the flour, granulated base, curry powder and pepper

2. Add the shortening and cut in either by hand or using a mixer/processor

3. Gradually add the ice water till the dough comes together, wrap and chill

4. Roll the dough out and cut into 4 circles, or shape each individually free form

5. Place filling on bottom half, brush bottom edge with egg wash

6. Fold the top half over the bottom and crimp to seal with fingers or a fork

7. Brush the tops with egg wash and bake at 350 till golden


1 pound raw ground beef, or shredded braised/cooked lamb, beef or chicken

2 tablespoons flour

1 cup diced onion, red-yellow-green or sliced whites of leek

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 tablespoon each minced garlic and chipotle pepper

2 tablespoons tomato paste or 1 small tomato diced fine

½ teaspoon each allspice, thyme, and cumin

1 cup appropriate stock or water with stock base

To taste granulated beef base and fresh ground black pepper


  1. Saute the protein in olive oil till cooked or heated
  2. Add the flour and mix well , them the onion cook 5 minutes
  3. Add curry, garlic, chipotle, tomato, allspice, thyme and cumin mix well
  4. Add the stock or water bring to a simmer
  5. Adjust seasonings with granulated base and black pepper
  6. Remove from heat, cool to room temperature
  7. Dough circles as instructed in the above dough recipe
  8. Place filling in lower half of circle and fold over, sealing edge with egg wash


Don’t panic these are just cigar or free form sphere shaped empanadas using cassava/manioc as the starch envelope or any starch with your choice of vegetable, cheese, fruit,  meat or seafood stuffing. This recipe uses diced pork loin because it’s easily obtained in Panama but shoulder or butt will also do and if processing the cooked meat is too much you can use ground pork or chorizo or even breakfast sausage.

1½ pound of peeled yucca, boiled soft in chicken stock with 4 bay leafs (use granulated base)

1 pound raw pork diced or ground or shredded store-bought cecina/tasajo

1 cup diced leeks or onion

1 small can Italian pear tomatoes or 2 fresh diced

½ package fresh saffron or ½ teaspoon achiote powder

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons bitter orange or lime juice

1 teaspoon finely minced fresh or bottled green peppercorns

1 cup meat stock or water with granulated base

to taste granulated meat base and freshly ground black pepper


  1. Discard  bay leaves, process or grind yucca to mashed potatoes consistency reserve
  2. Saute the pork in olive oil till browned
  3. Add leeks, tomatoes, saffron, and minced garlic, cook till fragrant
  4. Add flour, mix well then add Seville/bitter orange juice, pepper corns & base
  5. Cook until thickened then adjust seasonings with baser and pepper,  cool
  6. Shape the mashed yucca in ovals, or circles
  7. Place cooled pork mixture in centers and fold edges to seal, or use additional dough
  8. Shallow fry till golden brown

You can lighten the recipe a bit producing a more pastry like wrapper by incorporating the yucca mash with about 40% flour and a little oil and a teaspoon of achiote powder. Try this one ……..

1½ cups yucca mash  following the above procedure

2    cups flour

3    tablespoons canola or other oil (if you make annatto infused oil skip the achiote)

1    teaspoon achoite powder which will add a pink tinge & a little flavor

1    small quantity of water for processing the dough to pie crust consistency

1    teaspoon of baking powder will make it even lighter, optional

Shape the dough into circle or cigar shapes on a floured board, silplat (silicon) mat, piece of plastic warp or banana leaf. Place you selected stuffing in the center then fold in the edges to seal or top with additional dough. Often it’s best to chill your empanadas or carimanolas before shallow fry OR bake to a golden crust, you might also want to toss in a teaspoon of baking powder for a more airy texture.


Here is yet another starch preparation used to envelop Panamanian recipes for bollos, carimanola and empanadas, this construct is also used for Panamanian style tamales wrapped in banana leaves and then steamed or boiled. We’ll use fresh corn cut off the cob but many locals also use dried corn available in the local Chino’s which is something like hominy.  If you willing to try the dried variety you’ll need to soak it overnight much like you would beans.  I also expedite the process by nuking the  kernels for about 20 minutes prior to their over night soak after which you process the cooked kernels in a hand grinder, grain mill or cuisinart. After soaking the dry corn overnight change the water and cook covered, until the kernels are soft like  fresh corn cut from the cob.

4 cups fresh or 2 pounds soaked dried corn kernels cooked soft, washed and chilled

1 cup strong meat stock or water and granulated stock base

2 ounces lard, shortening, butter or rendered bacon fat

1 package smoked lean smoked bacon (tasajo ahumado) diced

8 ounces pork cecina or tasajo (store-bought) processed                   

½ cup diced leeks or red onion

1 tablespoon each minced garlic and chipotle pepper purée

2 cups cooked, frozen or canned spinach, mustard or amaranth greens

1 package local queso blanco, farmer’s cheese

to taste granulated stock base, white pepper and vinegar


  1. Process corn using grinder, grain mill or food processor
  2. Combine with meat stock and shortening mixing till fluffy, reserve
  3. Saute diced bacon till crisp drain and return to pan
  4. Add processed cecina, leeks, garlic and chili sweat 5 minutes
  5. Remove from heat, add drained wilted greens mix well
  6. Crumble and add cheese then balsamic vinegar, cool
  7. Insert the stuffing into formed masa ovals and manipulate to seal
  8. Bake, steam, or shallow fry