Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Panama Via My Stomach
All's been quiet on the Trash Salad front for the past few weeks since I made a sneaky trip to Panama (the skinny country between North/South America, not the retirement community in the Florida pan handle or this). Why Panama? Well, I hadn't visited a new country in 15 months (a 7-year record), and Panama seemed like a cheap/upcoming/accessible place to go with little foreplanning.
And it was, for the most part. I had a fantastic time and tried to see as much as possible, though of course all vacations are never long enough. Beaches on two oceans, midnight hike up a volcano, snorkeling and hot springs and monkeys and water taxis and wandering around the city etc etc. Beautiful country unfortunately suffering from awful air pollution (honestly, people still burn their garbage??). And the infrastructure isn't quite caught up with the volume of tourism (online or pre-booking of anything ever? nope).
Right, but how was the food? With limited exceptions, very mediocre bordering on straight up bad. I attribute this to the hundred year American occupation of the canal zone. Along with the Noriega thing and Operation Just Cause only 20 years ago, Panamanians likely have more important things to worry about than street food healthfulness.
Almost everything is fried, and almost everything that's fried is bad. The ubiquitous cheap street food is carne en palito (meat stick), which sounds delicious but in most places can be described as a spiral-cut dessicated hot dog. Even the rice and beans paled in comparison to most I had in Costa Rica.
But the top three exceptions to this were really quite stellar and are worth a mention:
Seafood Sancocho - This I actually had in a Thai restaurant as the special of the day which was labeled "Panamanian Soup." But it was basically a sancocho stew with plantains and barely-cooked white fish with rice on the side. This was awesome, though in hindsight my impression may have been tampered since it was the first non-fried meal I ate in a week.
Ceviche - Raw fish is one of my favorite foods, and it can't be beat when brightened up with lime juice, salt, and herbs. Ceviche is like bar food in Panama, and also spectacularly cheap. Beats the pants off of buffalo wings as a beer pairing.
Ropa Vieja - Kind of a spicy, beefy, pulled pork. Best enjoyed in sandwich form with hot plantain chips.
A special runner up:
Salchicha Guisada* - Panamanians love their hot dogs. Especially braised in a sweet sauce with onions and peppers as a breakfast item. Served with fried dough (Panamanian tortillas), naturally. I actually loved this and it cost $2, but am 90% sure that it was the cause of debilitating stomach cramps for 24 hours. Worth every agonizing second.
*A google image search for this will produce 50% sausage dog photos!