If you’re heading to Panama and are looking to explore the cuisine, you’re in the right place! Panamanian food presents a fascinating fusion of flavours, with common ingredients including chilli, corn, yucca, seafood, lime and plantain.
Essentially a mash-up of Spanish, African and indigenous influences, the food in Panama is well worth exploring. After eating my way around the country for two months, I’ve come to know a thing or two about the cuisine. No matter whether you’re looking for carby delights or sweet treats, you’ll find some Panama dishes to tantalise your tastebuds.
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Panama Food Traditions
Street food is not as common in Panama as elsewhere in Latin America and those looking for cheap eats are best served by the canteen-style eateries dotted over every city. Open for breakfast and serving food right through until the evening, these cafeterías offer a great way to fill your plate for just a few dollars.
Owing to the large US expat scene in Panama, fast food has become popular over recent years, especially fried chicken shops. These also offer a good value for money dinner.
The cuisine on offer will likely depend on where you are in the country. Panamanian cuisine uses a mix of locally sourced ingredients so if you’re close to the sea, expect more seafood on menus. Likewise, if you’re in the western highlands where it is more chilly, you’ll likely see more soups, beans and rice.
The food in Panama has long been used as a tool of social interaction, with communal eating being highly valued within communities. Special dishes will be served at important celebrations, both religious and cultural.
Must-Try Food in Panama
1. Sancocho de Gallina Panameño
The first dish on our list of Panamanian cuisine is probably the most iconic. The famous sancocho (a.k.a. hen soup) is enjoyed across the country and is similar to the chicken broths found all over Latin America. Sancocho is the national dish of Panama.
Originating from the Azuero Peninsula in the southwest, this flavourful broth consisting of chicken and local vegetables such as yam, corn and carrot, is a favourite everywhere. Ideal for warming up on a cool day, sancocho is also touted to be the best hangover cure in Panama! It is usually served alongside white rice.
A common feature in Caribbean dishes across Latin America, patacones are fried plantains. Sometimes referred to as tostadas in parts of Central America, from Costa Rica downwards they are known as patacones.
Sometimes used as an accompaniment to a larger meal, patacones are also served as an appetiser in their own right, often salted and alongside a tasty dip.
3. Arroz con pollo
A simple but filling dish, this Panamanian comfort food is a cheap and cheerful favourite. Translating to chicken with rice, you’ll also likely see vegetables of the chefs’ choosing thrown into this dish.
Its famous yellow colour comes from annatto, a food colouring derived from achiote seeds. Arroz con pollo is enjoyed at a whole range of celebrations, from weddings to funerals and even Christmas. It is often served alongside a hearty portion of patacones.
Cilantro haters beware!
Panamanian cuisine commonly uses a herb called culantro. Similar in taste to cilantro (aka coriander), it looks different to cilantro but tastes very similar. In fact, it is actually stronger in taste! If you’re one of the many people who cannot bear the taste of cilantro, don’t eat the green leaves which garnish your food!
Over the last few years, I have spent a lot of my time exploring Latin America. And, without a doubt, my favourite food (so far) is ceviche. While Peru is most famous for this raw fish dish, the Panamanians do a great version of this fishy feast too.
Commonly made from tilapia or corvina and cured with lime juice in Panama, it is often served alongside salted crackers and a kind of tomato sauce. The best place to try ceviche in Panama City is the fish market, a short walk from Casco Viejo. The ceviche pots are just a couple of dollars and make for a refreshing snack on a hot day. Alternatively, go the whole hog and opt for a delicious seafood platter!
5. Tamales Panameños
Tamales are commonly eaten across Latin America. In Panama, the tamale is a mix of corn dough with ingredients like raisins, capers and either pork or chicken. The mixture is wrapped in banana leaves before being boiled.
This dish is commonly eaten during the Christmas and New Year period but is available in restaurants year-round.
If you’re looking for a sweet treat to cool you down, Panama’s favourite street food is a must-try. Essentially a snow cone made from shaved ice, condensed milk and fresh tropical fruit, they only cost a dollar or two and can be easily eaten on the go.
If you fancy a raspado, keep your eyes peeled in public parks and close to schools. This tends to be where the raspado vendors hang out. Ask nicely and you may even get the chance to shave your own ice – a feat much harder than it looks!
7. Bollo de Maiz
Similar to Panamanian tamales, bollo de maiz is a type of ball made from corn dough. Sometimes wrapped in corn husk or plantain leaves, they are boiled before eating. You may find them stuffed with beef or enjoyed cold.
Often eaten alongside coffee and cheese, bollos are a good pick-me-up if you are indulging in exercise. After visiting Volcan Baru, I was given bollo de maiz to get my energy back up!
It was the Spanish that first introduced Latinos to empanadas. Originally consumed by labourers as they were easy to eat on the go, empanadas are still enjoyed as a snack.
Empanadas come in two varieties in Panama; those made from wheat flour and those made from corn flour. They are usually stuffed with vegetables or meat but sometimes have sweet fillings too.
In the Chiriqui Highlands (where Boquete is located), cheese is a common filling. While it is common to see people eating empanadas around the clock, they are popularly consumed for breakfast.
9. Ropa Vieja
While the name – which translates to ‘old clothes’ – is not that appealing, any visit to Panama must include a hearty serving of Ropa Vieja. Originally prepared from the leftovers of other dishes, this beef stew is slow-cooked for hours before being served.
Featuring lots of herbs and spices, the tenderness of the beef combined with the flavourful punch makes this one of the best foods in Panama. Ropa vieja is commonly served alongside rice and patacones. Keep an eye out for it in highland areas where it is most commonly eaten.
10. Guacho de Mariscos
Confusingly pronounced ‘watch-o de mariscos’, this traditional Panamanian dish may take a bit of searching for but is well worth the effort. A warming broth stuffed full of seafood and rice, it is a warming and satisfying dinner.
Owing to the rice content in this dish, guacho should be served immediately as the rice will quickly soak up the seafood stock. Guacho de Mariscos is a valued dish within Panamanian gastronomy and is often consumed on special occasions.
A staple of the Panamanian breakfast, holjaldres is essentially deep-fried bread. They are commonly served in a range of traditional Panamanian breakfast plates, alongside eggs and cheese. However, sweet versions are also available.
Holjaldres can be enjoyed as a snack. If you’re exploring Casco Viejo in Panama City, definitely sample the holjaldres on offer at Cafe Coca Cola – they are some of the best! Ideal for those on a budget, this doughy treat is an absolute bargain, meaning you can definitely eat twice as much!
12. Carimañolas Panameñas
Carimañolas are deep-fried yucca rolls, filled with meat or cheese. Greasy but delicious!
Sometimes confused with yucca fritters, the two are different, with carimañolas being more similar to empanadas and fritters being more flat and round, sort of like patacones.
This breakfast food is commonly eaten across Panama and usually picked up from hole-in-the-wall type eateries.
13. Panamanian Tortilla
Panamanian tortillas are likely to be different to others you have tasted. Made from corn and served in a disc shape, they have a crispy exterior. Commonly eaten as a breakfast food and served alongside fried eggs or white cheese, Panamanian tortillas provide a wholesome start to the day!
Though most famously eaten in Venezuela, arepas are also popular across Colombia and Panama. Made from corn dough and stuffed with a variety of fillings, they are eaten around the clock.
Arepas can be boiled, fried, baked or steamed and meat, cheese and avocado are popular fillings. They are a very budget-friendly snack so if you’re travelling Panama on a shoestring, make sure to check them out!
Exploring a country’s cuisine is undoubtedly one of the best parts of travel. There are a range of mouthwatering foods in Panama which cater to a range of tastes. With hearty broths, refreshing desserts and fried foods which you can eat on the go – Panamanian cuisine can deliver no matter the ask!
My favourite of all these Panamanian foods listed is ceviche but I also love guacho and ropa vieja. Which of these dishes and snacks are you most looking forward to trying?