Traditional Panamanian food relies heavily on starches and red meat, chicken, and pork. Green vegetables do not grow well in the tropics, so outside of better restaurants in the cities don’t be surprised if fried plantain is as close as you’ll come to a veggie side dish. Vegetarians will have a tough time finding a balanced meal even in cosmopolitan Panama City . Their best bet is usually a Chinese restaurants, which are found throughout the country.
Fish is excellent in Panama. The most common on the menu is also one of the most delicious: corvina, a delicately flavored saltwater fish. Restaurants often prepare it a dozen different ways, but usually simplest is best. Prepared well, corvina a la plancha (grilled corvina) is hard to beat. Guabina is similar to corvina; it tends to be found at the fancier restaurants.
Other seafood includes shrimp (camarones), prawns (langostinos), squid (calamares), octopus (pulpo), crab (cangrejo), red snapper (pargo rojo), and lobster (langosta). Think twice about eating lobster in Panama since it’s terribly overfished.
Ceviche in Panama is delicious. Traditionally it consists of raw corvina marinated in lime juice, peppers, and onions, which chemically “cook” the fish. It’s increasingly common to find shrimp or octopus ceviche, or ceviche made from a combination of all three.
A staple of the Panamanian diet is yuca or manioc. (Don’t confuse yuca with yucca, the desert plant.) It’s a root vegetable prepared in a variety of ways. Most common is deep-fried yuca, which when done right is crispy and golden brown on the outside and chewy on the inside. Carimañolas are a kind of roll made from ground and boiled yuca that is generally stuffed with meat then deep fried.
Plantains (plátanos), which are similar to bananas, are even more common. By the end of your trip you will probably have had more than your fill of patacones, which are green plantains cut crossways into discs, fried, pressed, and then fried again. These can be tasty when hot; they turn into concrete when cold. Ripe plantains are typically sliced lengthwise and then either fried or sprinkled with cinnamon and baked, or broiled with butter. Fried plantains are called tajadas; the baked or broiled plantain dish is known as plátanos maduros or plátanos en tentación.
Other typical treats include empanadas, a kind of turnover made with flour or corn pastry that is stuffed with spiced ground meat and fried; tamales, which are made from boiled ground corn stuffed with chicken or pork and spices, then wrapped in banana leaves and boiled; and tortillas, which in Panama are thick, fried corncakes often served with breakfast in the countryside.
The Panamanian palate doesn’t tend to favor lots of spices, and you may find some of your meals rather bland. But done well, even the simplest country fare can be delicious. Try sancocho, a thick and hearty soup usually made with chicken, yuca, and whatever vegetables are around. Ropa vieja (“old clothes”) is also good; it consists of spiced shredded beef served over rice. Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) is also a common dish. Food is spicier in parts of Caribbean Panama, where hot sauce and dishes made with coconut milk are sometimes available.
Outside of Panama City , the menu can get monotonous. Main dishes will typically involve beef (usually referred to as “carne,” though literally this just means “meat”), chicken (pollo), and pork (puerco). A good strategy to keep from getting jaded is to take advantage of the very good international restaurants in Panama City and save traditional fare for trips into the hinterland.
Panamanians tend to like hot lunches. Lunchtime traffic in Panama City can be almost as bad as rush hour, as the streets get jammed with drivers eager to go home or out to a restaurant for a hot meal. Even workers (and travelers) on a tight budget partake when they can, filling hole-in-the-wall restaurants called fondas, which serve big plates of comida corriente. This is the traditional Panamanian equivalent of fast food, generally consisting of a variety of local dishes (comida criolla) served from steam tables in a cafeteria setting. It’s easy to fill up for less than US$2 at these places, which are often open for breakfast and dinner as well.