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Panamanian Cuisine

Signature dishes and flavors

One of Panama's best-known dishes, carimañola, consists of the tuber yuca, ground and boiled and made into a dumpling that's filled with minced beef or chicken and pieces of boiled egg. They're a Panamanian breakfast staple. Sancocho is the other dish that truly says "Panama." This chicken and yuca soup—sometimes prepared as thick as a stew—is flavored with culantro. (Think "cilantro," but slightly more aromatic.) It's reputed to be good for whatever ails you and also makes for a surprisingly cooling dish on a sweltering day. To make the descriptively named ropa vieja ("old clothes"), a Panamanian cook uses whatever is left over in the kitchen to jazz up a dish that is, at its most basic, shredded flank steak with rice and tomato sauce. Ropa vieja is one of the few Panamanian dishes that can be quite spicy.

Cooks here make a variation on Mexican tamales—the singular is tamal—with a filling of chicken, peas, onions, and cornmeal boiled inside tied plantain leaves. You eat the filling but not the leaves, and certainly not the string. Every Latin American country claims its own variation on empanadas. Panamanians make semi-circular ones with a filling of ground beef and cheese fried in dough and served as appetizers. Caribbean cooks often add plantain to the filling.

Almojábana, corn-flour bread, and patacones, salted green plantains fried golden brown and pounded into crispy chips, accompany many meals. Hojaldras make a tasty side dish to any breakfast. When made sweet and sprinkled with powdered sugar, they're like doughnuts, but they are often prepared with ham and cheese.

Seafood

With 1,500 miles of coastline, seafood is everywhere. (What else would you expect in a nation whose name means "abundance of fish"?) Corvina, a white sea bass, frequently shows up as the main ingredient in ceviche. Whatever the cubed pieces of fish or seafood used, Panamanian ceviche is marinated in lime juice, with onion and celery and sometimes hot pepper and served chilled as an appetizer.

Beverages

Seco, a distilled sugarcane firewater, is commonly tempered with chilled milk. For a smooth easy beverage, try chicheme, a blend of milk, cornmeal, cinnamon, and vanilla. And beverages don't come more basic than the ubiquitous pipa. Poke a hole in an unripe coconut, stick in a straw, and you have a refreshing drink of coconut juice. Roadside stands everywhere sell them.

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