Overland miles: 5335 Bus hours: 166 Empanadar: 3
At a nondescript bus terminal breaking the journey between Bocas del Toro and The Lost and Found Lodge we noticed two unusual features of the grub on offer. First, there was lots of it – being served out of steam trays, buffet style – and second, one hot stand on the cabinet contained pork char siu bao (Chinese steamed rice buns). They are absolutely one of my favourite types of street food, right next to empanadas (um, pies: I’ll get to them in a later, because they deserve their own post). Oh, and they were sitting right next to empanadas. Everyday Panamanian cuisine was ticking all the boxes.
We promptly ordered a couple of chicken empanadas and scoffed them in the baking heat by the side of the dusty highway, thus ushering in the new era of the Empanadar to our daily stats table, and retiring the redundant Tacocount, which died a death back in San Juan del Sur. (But let us give due thanks for those 73 little envelopes of deliciousness – all except the five evil gremlins which destroyed our insides back in Mexico City; they can go to hell).
I digress. The reason I was telling you about the bus station is that you do not normally see Chinese street food, not what looked suspiciously like the real deal, in the middle of Latin America. I had to order one of the steamed buns as well, just to make sure. I knew the snack was kosher the moment I bit into it: the semi-sweet rice pastry dissolved like marshmallow to give up its sticky treasure of shredded pork in plum sauce. Oh my sainted aunts, the Chinese were in town.
Further research revealed that roughly 10% of the Panamanian population are of Chinese descent, and many are still first generation, so it’s no wonder that their cuisine is widely available in corner shops and cafes across the country. I had assumed that by the time we got to Panama City, this would translate into a commensurate increase in the number of good Chinese restaurants available – even perhaps their own Chinatown. For some reason, this turned out to be wishful thinking. Maybe Panama isn’t ready for the world’s oldest culinary heritages to explode on its doorstep. But we were still able to snack ourselves silly on those stupendous steamed buns and other shop-sold delicacies, like these chicken dim sum:
But whilst we were making enquiries about Chino-Panamanin cuisine, we got some decent leads on the Mercardo del Mariscos, a fresh fish market getting rave reviews from foodies, which the legendary Anthony Bourdain visited in his latest travel series. So in the early morning sunshine we strolled along the coastal path out of Casco Viejo to the pungent fishing district. In the cavernous main hall, row after row of fish stalls offered a bewildering choice of the freshest catches of the day, from still-wriggling caramel coloured lobster to glistening hyper-colour line-ups of tuna, marlin and bass. On other stands, a coterie of steel-faced ladies doggedly shucked clams and peeled prawns. They were preparing the market’s acclaimed ceviche, a Peruvian import for which this market has become justifiably famous.
Not much goes into a good ceviche (as opposed to a more exotic fish coctel) apart from onion, lime, cilantro, a dash of chilli and some incredibly fresh cuts of fish. As this food experience was the main purpose of our visit, we spent an unreasonable time seeking out our favoured vendor, settling finally on the dependably named La Mujer de Ceviches (The Woman of Ceviches). Clare chose the classic pescado (fish) style, and I went for the more mysterious Combanacion – a robust mix of shrimp, octopus, clams and squid. In a second we were holding two styrofoam cupfuls of some of the zingiest, sweetest, most mouth-meltingly delicious fish and seafood we have ever tasted, for three and a half balboas in total (or US$3.50 in the new money). That, my friends, is street-food from the gods.
On way back, we popped into La Rana Dorada (The Golden Frog), a new craft ale pub and microbrewery producing top quality Belgium, German and English influenced beers. I had been starved of good draft beer since getting one of the local Mexican lagers on tap four months ago, so this bar was like a lake of nut-brown, frothy nectar in the Latin American desert. Because drinks are always ordered at table in this part of the world, the pub offer a natty boat-shaped flight of their whole range so punters can test the wares before purchase. Their rich, hoppy IPA was my favourite, although they had light citrus, wheat and porter ales for every palette.
The next day, beguiled by thoughts of those big old hot buffets I mentioned were served up at Panamanian bus stations, we stopped off at a ‘fonda’ (Cafe Coca-Cola) for a traditional hearty lunch. A Fonda is what was called a Soda in Costa Rica, and a Coca-Cola there was called a Gaseosa, although in other parts of Central and North America, sodas would simply be called Refrescos, except in Mexico where you can order them as Agua Frescas (rather than bottled water, which is known as Agua Pura). Are you keeping up?
Fondas like Coca-Cola serve up a really impressive range of good, solid home-cooking, usually including cuts of meat accompanied by lentils and potatoes or rice, and partnered with a rich sauce of tongue or other offal (if desired). A well stacked plate will set you back about US$2.75, and keep you going ’til the late hours. Cafes like this are a slice of the classic Panamanian lifestyle, places where old men come to pass the middle of the day, chew the fat off their cutlet with razor sharp false teeth, shoot the breeze and shout loudly at sturdy waitresses and each other. Interestingly, Chow Mein is also often on offer – a slight but insistent culinary hint of the influence of Chinese immigration on this diverse country.
After our final hit of fantastic Fonda food at our local restaurant, Fonda Leon, it was time to head across the country to the Atlantic Coast and meet the captain and shipmates of our home for the next five days, the catamaran Santana. That evening, as the waves broke gently below our meet-up restaurant in the tiny harbour of Puerto Lindo, we celebrated a new chapter of our journey with a couple of cold beers and a beautifully cooked plate of octopus in a wine sauce. It was hard to think of a simpler or more satisfying way to bid adios to Central America.