Traditional Panamanian Food has strong influences from Africa, Spain and its indigenous Native American population. There is a lot of similarity and overlap with some of our favourite famous foods of Colombia, as well as several unique dishes we'd never heard of before.
These are the top 5 Panamanian traditional dishes you must try whilst traveling to Panama.
Sancocho de gallina Panameño
Sancocho is a delicious, light chicken soup with potatoes, corn on the cob, culantro herb, yuca and plantains. Other ingredients often used include corn on the cob (mazorca), ñampi (a tropical root vegetable), hot sauce, chopped onions, garlic and oregano.
The traditional recipe of sancocho is from the Azuero region, but other regions have their own variations. For example, in the town of La Chorrera, it is referred to as ancocho chorrerano and is only made with free range chicken, onions, garlic, chili peppers, oregano and ñame. Whereas in the Chiriquí Province, it is called sancocho chiricano and it is made with squash, giving it a yellowish colour.
Due to the varied ingredients used to make a sancocho, it is often used as a metaphor for Panama's racial diversity, showing that each different ingredient has just an important and equal role to play in the preparation of this very yummy dish. As such it is considered the national dish of Panama.
Ropa vieja: slowly cooked old clothes!
We first came across this dish when travelling in Gran Canaria. If you understand Spanish, this dish will always bring a smile to your face – it literally means old clothes.
Ropa vieja is a beef stew with spices like black pepper, cumin and oregano. The name comes from a legend that a man ran out of food while serving his guests, so he picked one of his garments and made a stew out of it!
Old clothes or not, the ropa vieja we tried in Panama City was delicious and definitely a dish to look out for.
Panamanian tortillas: thick corn cakes
Unlike Mexican tortillas, Panamanian tortillas are thicker, circular and made from corn dough. Tortillas are a popular breakfast dish in Panama, usually topped with melted cheese or eggs. They are similar to Colombian arepas, which are also a type of corn cake.
Panamanian tortillas are usually deep fried (tortillas fritas), but they can also be grilled (tortillas asadas).
The tortillas are an indigenous influence, dating back centuries. For example, in 1631 famous explorer Diego Ruiz de Campos wrote about the consumption of tortillas in the villages near the Caimito River, west of Panama City by its Native Americans inhabitants. The tradition has been kept alive since then!
Carimañolas: stuffed yuca fritters
Carimañolas is another popular breakfast dish and afternoon snack in Panama. It is a torpedo shaped yuca fritter stuffed with cheese, seasoned ground beef and then fried.
Yuca, or cassava, is a woody shrubroot vegetable, common in Latin America and full of carbohydrates. Yuca is not to be confused with yucca, which is type of flowering plant in south California.
The origin of carimañolas is unclear, but it is thought it originate from the French word, carmagnole, which was a short jacket worn by working-class militants during the French Revolution (1789-1799). This jacket not only inspired a lively song called carmagnole but is also thought to have inspired this popular Panamanian dish, due to the reference of the cassava wrapping the filling as “a jacket”.
Ron Ponche: THE unique Panamanian cocktail
This is Panama's signature cocktail, similar to Egg Nog. It is a cocktail of rum mixed with egg yolks, vanilla extract and evaporated milk.
Ron Ponche is particularly popular during the holidays, especially at Christmas and New Years. A glass of Ron Ponche is sipped slowly, just like you would drink a glass of Baileys.
Check out this sexy Panamanian chef showing off his chocolate Ron Ponche recipe. It's in Spanish, but even if you don't understand, he makes it very easy to follow!!
Advice for LGBTQ travellers to Panama
Panama is a very conservative country, with a strong influence from the Catholic Church. Homophobia is therefore prevalent across the country, so do take note of this. However, things are different in the cities, especially Panama City, s well as in other parts of the country where expats from the US and Europe have settled, in particularly Bocas del Toro. Find out more in our gay guide to Panama City and Bocas del Toro.
Happy travels are safe travels
We recommend you always take out travel insurance before your next vacation. What happens if you suffer from illness, injury, theft or a cancellation? With travel insurance, you can have peace of mind and not worry. We love World Nomads travel insurance and have been using it for years. Their comprehensive coverage is second to none and their online claims process is very user friendly.
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For more inspiration, check out our 5 interesting facts about Panama you need to know.