Panama is a melting pot of ethnicities, and its cuisine is accordingly influenced by its diverse population. Within Panama City, travelers will find something from every corner of the world, including French, Japanese, Italian, Thai, Middle Eastern, and Chinese food -- all of it very good and true to its roots. In regional areas, traditional Panamanian cuisine is an overlapping mix of Afro-Caribbean, indigenous, and Spanish cooking influences incorporating a variety of tropical fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Most Panamanian restaurants are casual -- diners, beachfront cafes, and roadside fondas (food stands). A large U.S. population has spawned North American cafes and bistros serving burgers and the like, and fast-food chains are plentiful in Panama City.
Meals & Dining Customs
Panamanian cuisine is tasty but can be repetitive given that every meal is based around coconut rice (rice made with coconut milk) and beans, and fried green plantains called patacones. A lot of Panamanian food is fried -- just stop at a fonda and see for yourself. Even breakfast is a selection of fried meats and breads. Panamanian food is neither spicy nor heavily seasoned; in fact, salt is often the only seasoning used in many staple dishes.
Dining hours generally follow North American customs, with restaurants opening 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 9pm or sometimes even 8pm. Upscale restaurants in Panama City serve until 11pm.
Note: All Panamanian restaurants and bars recently became smoke-free, so smokers will have to take it outside.
Breakfast -- Start your day with a cup of fresh-brewed Panamanian joe. Breakfast menus around the country feature standbys like scrambled eggs, toast, and fruit, but Panamanians like their tortillas, too. These are not Mexican-style tortillas but deep-fried corn batter topped with eggs and cheese, something akin to huevos rancheros. Hojaldras, deep-fried bread sprinkled with powdered sugar like a Panamanian doughnut, are another common breakfast staple. Afro-Caribbeans eat greasy meats like pork with their breakfast; if your arteries can handle it, give it a try. A hearty breakfast of "Caribbean porridge," made of rice, beans, and pork, is called gallo pinto, or "spotted rooster," and can be found in local joints.
Appetizers & Snacks -- Ceviche, raw cubes of fish and onion marinated in lemon juice, is a popular dish throughout Latin America. It's usually made with sea bass or with shrimp or octopus. Crunchy cornmeal pastries stuffed with meat are called empanadas -- 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. Plantains and patacones, along with coconut rice (arroz con coco) and beans (frijoles), are the standard accompaniment to traditional Panamanian dishes. Another popular snack is a tamale; much like the Mexican version, tamales are cornmeal patties stuffed with meat and steamed in a banana leaf. Sandwiches in Panama are called emparedados.
Meat & Poultry -- 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 called culantro. Sancocho is said to put strength back into your body after a late night out. 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. Chicken is a staple, too, as is pork. 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 it is ever offered to you.
Seafood -- Panama, which means "abundance of fish," lives up to its name with lots of fresh delicacies from the sea, including pargo (red snapper), corvina (sea bass), langostino (jumbo shrimp), langosta (lobster), calamari, cangrejo (crab), and pulpo (octopus). Traditional Panamanian seafood 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 expensive because of overfishing and dwindling supplies.
Vegetables -- Panama's agricultural breadbasket 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. Sometimes you'll see corn, or the exotic root vegetables such as the aforementioned yuca and ñamé.
Fruits -- 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.
Desserts -- Pastel tres leches, or "three-milk cake," is made with just that: evaporated, condensed, and regular milk, cooked into a rich, puddinglike cake. Flan is as popular here as it is all over Latin America. 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.
Beverages -- Major brands of soft drinks are available in Panama. 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 also 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 common 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 (mostly sold at roadside stands) 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.
Beer, Wine & Liquor -- When in Panama, do as the locals do and down an icy cold local beer. Beer is Panama's most popular alcoholic drink, and there is a wide variety of national brands to sample, 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). But wine consumption is increasing in Panama, 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.