Cassava was served everywhere we turned in Panama and I was keen to try to cook it myself. The muddy tuberous roots were sold along the streets, in markets and supermarkets and is a staple of South American and Caribbean cooking. Cassava is also known as manioc, yuca, and tapioca and is an excellent source of carbohydrates. It can be boiled, fried, steamed, baked, grilled or mashed, and is sometimes even dehydrated to form a powder to make bread or dumplings.
Fried cassava is surprisingly much like potato, but with a slightly bitter taste and much much starchier. It’s served as chips with meat and stews and as crisps with ceviche or as a bar snack. It is one of the most drought-tolerant crops, capable of growing on marginal soils. There are two varieties of cassava, either sweet or bitter and the bitter variety can be poisonous if not cooked properly.
We shallow fried our peeled and cut up cassava in sunflower oil, covered with salt and a squeeze of lemon. Delicious yuca frita! I prettified it a little with some pal choi flowers growing in the garden and we had a spicy siracha chilli garlic dipping sauce. Yum!
Panamanian food is a mix of latino, afro-antillean, asian and indigenous dishes and ingredients, reflecting its diverse population. Each ethnic group brings its own blend of spices, recipes, ingredients and cooking methods. The communities of Panama are majority latino communities based in agriculture eating mainly root vegetables, starchy fruits, cows, pigs, chicken, beans and rice. The style of cooking is often rustic over an open fire or propane gas-powered stoves. Panamanians have a tendency to prefer fried foods over boiled.
In Kuna Yala we were well looked after and the local family that looked after us served us fresh red snapper most days with coconut rice, fried plantain, a little potato salad and fresh pineapple. On the one day they didn’t serve us snapper – they fed us lobster. It was all delicious. As a preserving method they smoke most of the fish that is not consumed on the day it’s caught.
In Darién we enjoyed lentils, delicious fried fish or chicken with rice, all cooked by local women. Read about our Darién adventure here.
On the fertile volcanic slopes around Volcan in Chiriquí province (where we stayed this time), a typical plate of food in restaurants would be rice and beans and either a beef stew of grilled or fried chicken with a side of potato salad and although Panamanian food differ from region to region I think this is a typical plate of food in many parts of the country. Typical Panamanian foods are mildly flavoured and common ingredients are maize, rice, wheat flour, plantains, cassava, beef, chicken, pork and seafood.
- sunflower oil (or avocado oil if you want to avoid vegetable oil)
- siracha dipping sauce (or ketchup, why not)?