Panama is a melting pot of ethnicities and in the main towns and cities you can find a wonderful mix of French, Japanese, Italian, Thai, Middle Eastern, and Chinese food alongside the traditional Panamanian cuisine which is a fusion of Afro-Caribbean, indigenous and Spanish cooking.
Panamanian cuisine is similar in many ways to that of other Latin American countries but not nearly so free with the hot peppers. Traditional Panamanian cuisine is tasty but can be a little repetitive given that every meal is based around coconut rice and beans, arroz con guandu. Essentially rice is cooked with beans and other spices and usually gets served along with fried green plantains called patacones. The meat dish (if there is one) is the thing that changes.
Other favorite foods in Panama include are pollo (chicken), ceviche (raw fish in lemon juice and cilantro), yams, corvina (a white fish from the Pacific), and camarones (shrimp).
Though a variety of fruits are grown in Panama, fresh fruit is not served in restaurants as often as in other countries; fruit is best bought at outdoor markets on the side of the road.
Vegetables can be found in supermarkets but are not as plentiful as you may like.
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Breakfast in Panama
Once you have had your cup of fresh-brewed coffee, breakfast menus around the country do feature familiar foods like scrambled eggs, toast, and fresh fruit, but Panamanians like their tortillas, too. These are not Mexican-style tortillas but deep-fried corn batter topped with eggs and cheese or beans, something akin to huevos rancheros.
A lot of Panamanian food is fried. Even the traditional breakfast is a selection of fried meats and breads. Hojaldras or Panamanian doughnuts are a ‘healthy’ option –big dollops of deep fried bread sprinkled with powdered sugar. Afro-Caribbean also eat greasy meats like pork with their breakfast. A really hearty breakfast is "Caribbean porridge," made of rice, beans, and pork, is called gallo pinto, or "spotted rooster," and can be found in local eateries. That lot should keep you going until lunch time!
Appetizers, Snacks and Street Food
Ceviche, raw cubes of fish and onion marinated in lemon juice, is a popular food throughout Latin America, and rightly so. It's usually made with sea bass or with shrimp or octopus. Totally divine.
Empanadas are crunchy cornmeal pastries stuffed with meat - greasy but good when they're fresh and hot.
The yuca root, a Panama staple, when fried, substitutes for French fries.
Yuca is also used for a carimañola; the yuca is mashed and formed into a roll stuffed with meat and boiled eggs, then deep-fried.
Plantains are served in two varieties: patacones, or green plantains, cut in rounds, pounded and deep-fried, and salted; or plátanos maduros, ripe plantains, broiled or sautéed in oil.
Ripe plantains are also called plátanos en tentación when they are slightly caramelized with sugar and cinnamon.
Tamale is another popular snack food much like the Mexican version, tamales are cornmeal patties stuffed with meat and steamed in a banana leaf.
Sandwiches in Panama are called emparedados.
There are a number types of vendors you'll find wandering Panama's streets. One of the best is the fruit carts selling fresh prepared pineapple, mango and water melon. The Panamanians like their fruit with a sprinkling of vinegar, salt, and pepper (yes it sounds a bit strange, but it creates a great medley of sweet, salty, and sour tastes all at once).
Later in the day, you'll find the kebab dealers cooking on a barbeque made out of out of old trash bins. Pork, beef, chorizo sausage, chicken: all great food on a stick. The customary accompaniment is a log of freshly-steamed yucca covered in a chimichuri-type sauce.
Tortillas are another great snack off the street. The flour tortilla is lightly toasted and then filled with the seasoned meat of your choice served with a number of great salsas with a wedge of fresh lime.
Other specialities include pickled quail eggs in a bag, sao which, in layman terms, is raw pork feet pickled using vinegar and onion slivers!
Road-side hawkers also sell things you have to prepare before you eat, such as dried peas (common in Cocle), baby crabs skewered on strings (Chiriqui) and even whole iguana by the tail (various spots in Azuero).
Meat & Poultry (and Turtles!!)
There is perhaps no dish more emblematic of Panama than the sancocho, a chicken stew made with a starchy root called ñamé and seasoned with a cilantro-like herb. Sancocho is said to revive you after a late night out on the town.
Meat is commonplace, served as a bistec (steak), or in a popular dish called ropa vieja, meaning "old clothes" and consisting of shredded beef with a spicy tomato sauce served over rice.
In the Caribbean, some locals still eat turtle soup and turtle eggs, although it is usually kept under wraps due to vocal conservation efforts to protect turtles -- these are endangered creatures, so refuse turtle if ever given the chance.
Panama, which means "abundance of fish," lives up to its name with lots of fresh delicacies from both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans including pargo (red snapper), corvina (sea bass) often used in the cerviche, langostino (jumbo shrimp), langosta (lobster), calamari, cangrejo (crab), and pulpo (octopus).
Traditional Panamanian sea food dishes come four ways: fried, grilled, al ajillo (with a spicy garlic sauce), or a la española (sautéed with tomatoes and onions). Lobster and jumbo shrimp are getting expensive unfortunately because of over fishing and dwindling supplies.
Panama's agricultural bread basket is around the flank of Volcán Barú in the western Highlands; here the volcanic soil and high altitudes encourage year-round growing conditions, and vegetables are readily available.
Elsewhere, the hot, humid weather is not conducive to growing vegetables, which is why you'll see so few served with meals. Salads are not hard to come by, but traditional Panamanian fare is typically only served with just a small cabbage salad topped with a slice of tomato. Mostly you'll see corn, yuca and ñamé.
Panama has a wealth of tropical fruits, but the most common you'll see (especially at breakfast) are pineapple, papaya, banana, and melon. Other fruits are the maracuyá, or passion fruit, which is better as a juice than off the tree; guanabana, or soursop; and guayaba, or guava.
Pastel tres leches, or "three-milk cake," is made with just that: evaporated, condensed, and regular milk, cooked into a rich, pudding like cake.
Flan (like a crème caramel) is as popular here as it is all over Latin America and Spain. You will find this sweet food at almost every restaurant.
Street vendors in Panama City (especially on Av. Balboa or in Casco Viejo) sell raspados, or fruit-juice-flavored snow cones. Panamanians like to top the cone off with a dollop of condensed milk.
Major brands of soft drinks are available in Panama; however, you can't find a more fresh-off-the-tree beverage than a pipa, the sweet, clear liquid of an unripe coconut. Roadside vendors hack a hole in the crown of the coconut, pop in a straw, and for about 25¢ you have what some refer to as the "nectar of the gods." It is said to aid digestion.
Chicha is the common name for juice, and the variety of fresh fruit juices in Panama is a tasty and refreshing elixir on a hot day. Chichas come in a variety of flavors such as watermelon and pineapple, but there are more exotic chichas such as chicha con arroz y piña, a beverage made from rice and boiled pineapple skins; naranjilla, a tropical fruit whose juice has the taste of apple cider; or chicha de marañón, a beverage made from the fruit of a cashew tree.
A local favorite in the outskirts of Panama City is chicheme, a corn-based beverage mixed with water, sugar, and cinnamon. Panamanians tout the drink for its nutritional properties.
Panama is known for its high-quality coffee, with Café Durán being the most common brand. Kotowa, the Jansen Family, and Café Ruiz are all excellent, too. Café con leche is coffee with milk (usually condensed) or cream.
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Beer, Wine & Liquor
When in Panama, do as the locals do and down an icy cold local beer with your food. Beer is Panama's most popular alcoholic drink, and there is a wide variety of national brands such as Balboa, Atlas, Panamá, Soberana, and Cristal -- all light pale lagers, none of which are particularly outstanding, but all taste divine in a hot, sticky climate. International brands such as Heineken, Corona, and Guinness can be found even in small-town markets.
Panama's most famous drink is seco, a sugar-cane-distilled alcohol produced in Herrera and commonly served with milk and ice. You won't find seco in trendy bars or high-end restaurants; it's consumed mostly in rural communities and cantinas. Also popular in Panama are rum, vodka, and scotch.
You'll find Chilean, U.S., and Spanish wines on most menus, but the selection is limited, and restaurants serve red wines cold (must have something to do with the climate). Wine consumption is increasing in Panama though as evidenced by the growing number of upscale restaurants that put time and thought into their wine lists, and there are a few wine-specialty stores popping up here and there.
Dining hours generally follow North American customs, with restaurants opening early around 7 or 8am for breakfast, serving lunch from noon to 2pm, and dinner from 7 to 10pm. In smaller towns, you'll find that restaurants close as early as 9 or sometimes even 8pm. Upscale restaurants in Panama City serve until 11pm.