Panama food: 11 traditional dishes you must try

Sebastien Chaneac

We travelled a great deal around Panama during our big trip in Latin America, from Panama City up to Bocas del Toro, and back. Along the way, we tried lots of different Panamanian foods and drinks.

Traditional Panamanian food has strong influences from Africa, Spain and its indigenous Native American population. There is a lot of similarity and overlap with the traditional foods of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, which is not surprising given that they once used to be part of “Gran Colombia“.

We've put together some of our favourite Panamanian traditional dishes we discovered during our trip, which we think you need to try to get a real flavour of this fascinating country.

1. Sancocho de gallina Panameño: the National dish

Sancocho is a delicious, light chicken soup with potatoes, culantro herb (similar to cilantro but stronger in flavour), 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. 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 part has just an important and equally important role to play in the preparation of this very yummy dish.

As such it is considered the national dish of Panama.

Sancocho is one of the best foods from Panama

2. 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.

ropa vieja one of the best foods from Panama

3. 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 by the Native American inhabitants in the villages near the Caimito River.

corn tortillas one of the best foods from Panama

4. 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 shrub root vegetable, common in Latin America and full of carbohydrates.

The origin of carimañolas is unclear, but it is thought to have originated 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”.

Carimanolas one of the best foods of panama

5. Ron Ponche: THE unique Panamanian cocktail

This is Panama's signature cocktail, similar to eggnog. It is a cocktail of rum mixed with egg yolks, vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg 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 Bailey's or eggnog. You can use any kind of rum to try the recipe out for yourself, but if you can get your hands on some rum from Panama it will be even better and more authentic.

Ron Abuelo Rum (pictured) comes from one of the few distilleries that grow their own sugar cane and is particularly delicious.

Ron Ponche is a delicious rum-based cocktail from Panama you have to try

6. Hojaldras: deep-fried fritters

As the Panamanian equivalent to fried bread, Hojaldras is a delicious dish usually served for breakfast. The dough needs to sit overnight before cooking, so it's perfect for a lazy weekend brunch.

You can put anything from a fried egg to cheese slices on top of them, although they're also delicious with just some sugar. Kind of like French toast or pancakes, we also loved having them with some bacon on the side.

The traditional Panamanian breakfast is to have them with huevos fritos, steak, black beans, or salchichas in tomato sauce so you'll notice the yummy smells wafting through the streets each morning in Panama!

The deep fried bread from Panama known as Hojaldras are delicious!

7. Tostones: fried banana chips

Tostones, or Patacones as they're sometimes called, are fried green plantains. While plantains look a lot like bananas they're actually the starchier cousin of bananas usually used for cooking rather than just as a snack. The word “tostones” comes from the Spanish verb tostar which means “to toast”.

These toasted bad boys are not only toasted, they're put back into the oil to be toasted a second time round to get them extra crunchy. After the first frying, the slices of plantain are patted down, flattened before being fried again. Afterwards, they are salted so they end up tasting sort of like yummy banana chips.

Tostones from Panama are a yummy type of fried banana chips you have to try while in the country

8. Balboa Beer: Panama's first and finest

There are three main beers produced in Panama, but Balboa beer is the one that's been around the longest and also our favourite! Balboa is a pale lager, which is more refreshing in hot weather compared to regular beer.

First brewed in 1910 by the Panama Brewing & Refrigerating Company, “The Balboa” is not as popular with locals as the other “Panama” or “Atlas” beers, but we found that they were both much more likely to give us a headache the next day.

Beer is also pretty cheap in Panama, so the last thing you want is to drink a lot and then feel a bit woozy afterwards!

Our favourite local beer in Panama was the refreshing Balboa lager

9. Cocadas: coconut cookies

Cocadas are these yummy little coconut cookies that are popular in many parts of Latin America, particularly in Panama. In Panama, they are made using sweetened condensed milk instead of eggs and plenty of shredded coconut.

While they often just look a slightly golden colour like in the photo, sometimes food colouring is used to make them a bit fancy, along with additions like almonds or bits of dried fruit. You can also add flavours like chocolate, cinnamon, coffee, dulce de leche, lime or even orange. No matter how they're prepared, they're always a little bite of deliciousness!

Cocadas are yummy little coconut cookies  from Panama
Deparpor [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons | cropped from original

10. Tamales: dough and meat steamed in banana leaves

Most countries in South and Central America have their own version of tamales, which includes Panama. Tamales are made by cooking corn dough and meat inside parcels made from plantain leaves. Traditional tamales take a long time to cook, so they're usually served during special occasions in Panama.

They're slightly different to the ones from Mexico as they're cooked in plantain leaves rather than corn husks, plus the cornmeal is slightly wetter and more flavoursome than the Mexican ones. Very tasty and a must to try out when travelling in Panama.

Tamales from Panama are wetter and more flavourful than other kinds, you have to try them!

11. Chicheme: sweet corn drink

We know what you're thinking, “a sweet corn drink? Yuck!” But hear us out…this drink is completely unique to Panama and is surprisingly delicious as well as very refreshing. You make it by boiling corn (for quite a long time) with cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg and evaporated milk.

Once it's ready you can drink it warm or served ice cold. It's also a surprisingly filling drink, which kind of reminded us of a more liquid version of rice pudding. The town of La Chorrera just outside of Panama City is said to be where chicheme originated, so head there to try out the tastiest chicheme!

Chicheme is a surprisingly delicious drink from panama that's made from corn and milk
Editor161994 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons | cropped from original

Travel advice for LGTBQ community

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, as 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.


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Find out the most delicious traditional food and drinks you have to try in Panama

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Sebastien Chaneac

Sebastien is the co-founder, editor and author of nomadicboys.com. He is a tech geek, a total travel nerd and a food enthusiast. He spends the majority of his time planning Nomadic Boys' travels meticulously right down to the minute details. Sebastien has travelled to over 80 countries with his partner in crime and the love of his life, Stefan. He regularly shares his expertise of what it’s like travelling as a gay couple both on Nomadic Boys and on prominent publications ranging from Pink News, Matador, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian and many more. Originally from France, Sebastien moved to London in the early 2000s where he pursued a career as a computer programmer for Thompson Reuters and Bloomberg. He subsequently left it all to explore his passion for travelling around the world with Stefan to hand, and thus Nomadic Boys was born. Find out more about Nomadic Boys.

12 thoughts on “Panama food: 11 traditional dishes you must try”

  1. Hi, thanks for your reviews on Panamanian traditional dishes.
    Nevertheless, there are a couple things I’d like to clarify.
    1) black beans are not traditional of Panamanian cousine. Nowadays they are being offered due to the immigration of nationalities that enjoy them in their respectives countries.
    2) Tostones is the name given in most of the Caribbean, but in Panama they are called “PATACONES “, always, not sometimes (unless you are not Panamanian)

    Reply
  2. you guys are the best. I have been researching international travels and possible Expat status. It seems that whenever I lookup something about Panama (possibly my first international vacation) I always seen to have “Nomadic Boys” automatically pop up on my screen. This tells me you are a reputable site and very trustworthy. Yhank You guys for being there for so many people.

    Reply

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