Panamanian Food

This is Shirlene, blogging yet again about, you guessed it…FOOD!  It seems I am unable to refrain myself from sharing more about food and all things “food” related.

It’s amazing to me how varied foods can be from one place to the next.  I’ve been wanting to learn what a true Panamanian meal looks like and to learn how to make it, from the time we arrived.  A simple undertaking you might think, or so I did, however I found this was no small feat.   I naturally learned that rice, beans, seafood and chicken were staples to their diet locally.  When I asked some of the indigenous what a typical meal looked like, however, they stared back at me, rather blankly.  So I prompted,

“what do you eat for breakfast, for instance, and how do you prepare your food?”

“Rice.  Or beans.  Sometimes fish or chicken.”

“How about for lunch?”

“Rice. Chicken or fish.”

Well, I could guess what was for dinner but I still didn’t know how they prepared their food and what they used for flavorings.  I asked some local Panamanians who responded more quickly but with roughly the same amount of detail.  One day Bobby came home with a chicken stock seasoning mix sent from the little “tienda” owner nearby, “He says its’ so that you can make traditional Panamanian food.”  How sweet!  But I had no clue what to do with it.

My answer came in the form of an 18 year old Panamanian guy.  Remember Alex?  The young worker who was the victim of my first suturing experience?  His knife gash occurred while cooking for the crew of workers that our Pastor/construction friend Gene brought and I heard he was a good cook so early on I asked him if he would give me lessons.  He was a little shy about it but said he would gladly show me how to cook a Panamanian dish.  After we bonded over blood and needles he seemed much less hesitant to come into the house and show me the ropes so we planned what day he’d come in after working here on the property and I got a list of ingredients and excitedly awaited my lesson!

By the way, here’s a photo of his hand, all healed up!  (Thank you for your prayers against infection as he continued to work with that hand in the dirt, mud and grime)

Liz agreed to be our scribe as we both attempted to guesstimate on measurements as he threw a little bit o’ this, a lot of that, a pinch more of this, and a bit more of that, into the pots.

Alex prepping the chicken

Adding the freshly washed rice to a big “paella” full of coconut milk and water.  Alex looked around at the extensive pot selection we have here in our kitchen and said none of them were appropriate for cooking rice, so he ran down to the building where they do most of their cooking when they are here and came back with this beauty.  Liz and I have had difficulty getting rice to come out anything but mushy here in Panama….perhaps we’ve just been using the wrong pot!?

Alex working his magic in the kitchen

More of Chef Alex.  This was not a quick-fix kind of meal, to say the least, it was quite a process!

Taking a break to draw some pictures for the girls

Mmmm….at this point it smelled DELICIOSO!

So did the coconut rice!!  And look at those perfect rice grains.  I was impressed!

And here we are after enjoying our authentic Panamanian meal!

Left, going clockwise: Ethan, Ellie, Alex, Bobby, Bella, Terry, Liz, and Gene

Alex promised to teach me to cook more chicken and rice and so the following week he and his buddy Cano both prepared another traditional meal together for us.  The funny thing is that the ingredient list was hardly different than the first time, but the meals tasted distinctly unique.

In my first lesson, Alex brought the coconut milk all prepared for cooking the rice but this time I told them they had to show me from start to finish how to grate and remove the milk from the coconut.  Once again, this is not a quick process!

Here are some photos of “Panamanian Cooking Lesson #2″ :)

My coconut grater that was unacceptably small they informed me

Their coconut grater…definitely more substantial than mine. :)

This is a piece of metal roofing with nail holes pierced through, all over.  They punch the holes, turn it over, and bend the edges down to allow the grated pieces to collect underneath.  I need to find me some left over sheet metal and make myself a new grater that’s more conducive to large quantities of coconuts!

Two large grated coconuts!

Rice, beans and coconut milk

HOT chicken!

I welcome these two into my kitchen ANYtime!

Panamanian coleslaw in the works

Dinner time!  Our cooks serving us up their piece de resistance!  They took this job of serving up the plates very seriously.  After the food was all ready they turned to me and said that since it was my kitchen, I could serve everyone the meal.  I responded, as the chefs of the meal, I think it should be their honor (unless of course they really didn’t want to) and they carefully and generously dished up all of the plates.

This was so good (my photo of it was not)!

L to R: Liz, Terry, Cano, Isaac, Gene, Alex, Bobby, Ethan’s feet.

Our buddy Isaac got a true taste of Panamanian food while he was visiting from Washington.

Yes, that bad pun was intended. ;)

There were happy, appreciative grins all around!

Can you believe at 18 years of age they are able to pull off meals like these with no recipe, no measuring, just some special pots, a good eye, and a few choice ingredients?  I’d love to give their mama’s a big thumbs up for teaching their boys well! Although these guys look serious in the photo, they are funny, smiley, entertaining fellas and I enjoy having deeper conversations with them about their faith and their lives.  Pray that their hearts yearn for Christ and that they make a decision to live for Him!

My next mission is to actually try to replicate from start to finish an entire meal, Panamanian style, I’ll let you know how that one goes. ;)  For now we are working on it one dish at a time.

Here are some of our other endeavors involving local foods….

Chicha de Piña

In my search for Panamanian dishes and recipes I came across several websites that explained how to make this traditional pineapple drink.  As with most things Panamanian, it’s not a quick process, but it’s simple, easy to make and gets thumbs up around here!  By the way, I make the non-fermented kind of Chicha. :)

Here’s one of the things I just love about this recipe….you use all of your pineapple SCRAPS, the rinds, the core, etc., not any of the actual wonderful fruit.  It’s a GREAT way to get the most out of your pineapple!  I wouldn’t recommend making this from pesticide laden, non-organic pineapples but the next time you have access to some good clean pineapples, give this drink a try.  It resembles Agua de Horchata drinks which I also love as it’s more of a creamy drink.

Place your pineapple cuttings into a big pot


Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of rice, a good sized cinnamon stick (optional) and cover with about an inch of water.

Bring to a boil and cook until rice is tender.  Allow to cool completely, remove the cinnamon stick,

then puree the contents of the pot in a blender (a nice Vitamix or

Blendtec would be awesome for this job.  Our cheap little Bocas-bought blender

didn’t burn up but I don’t know

how many more batches of Chicha de Piña it will handle!)

Strain through a fine sieve and use a spoon to help strain

all of the liquid into a bowl or pitcher.  Discard what remains in the strainer.

 Find a sweet little helper because the straining process can take a while

Once you’ve finished straining it all, add a tsp or so of vanilla,

a 1/4 tsp of nutmeg, and some milk, evaporated milk or I used a can of coconut milk

which gave it a nice Piña-colada-y flavor.  Sweeten with water and sugar to taste and blend

until the sugar is dissolved (I used about 3/4 cup or so of

simple syrup per batch if I recall to avoid sugar “grittiness”—I don’t think

there is such a thing as super fine sugar here)

Pour over ice and serve

Ethan can’t get enough of the fruity drink!


The distinct flavor of the guanabana fruit is one I recall from my childhood trips to Colombia where I remember having my first guanabana smoothie, and guanabana flavored soda and ice cream bars.  I’ve not seen guanabana in the States, though surely there are parts of the country that carry them, but my tastebuds did get a blast from the past last summer when we were in Lancaster, PA visiting our bro Selim.  A little Colombian restaurant there served “liquados” (blended fruit drinks) and I promptly ordered a guanabana smoothie….which was promptly drunk by my 4 sweeties.  We revisited that restaurant once or twice more as well as another little Colombian bakery that also made fruit smoothies and every time we went I ordered the same thing.  Oh, I guess the English word for the fruit is Soursop although I had never heard the name before.  I wish that I could describe the flavor for those of you who have never tried it.  It has a sweet, almost pineapple-tangy-vanilla like taste to it, if I had to attempt to describe it.  I’d love to hear how you all describe the flavor though so go out and get some if you haven’t ever had it and report back to me your account on the flavor of this yummy fruit!

Porfilio, one of the local indigenous, gifted us with a guanabana this week.  This thing was ginormous!

Tall Liz and the tall guanabana

We had to wait a few days for it to ripen…then I did a little

searching on the internet for a liquado recipe and started

peeling and cutting into it.

I made a mess.  I’m good at that.

And more of a mess trying to pick out the seeds through the

juicy slime.

Some milk, ice cubes, sugar and a few spins in the blender later and voila!

Guanabana smoothies for everyone!  Porfilio (man in blue

sleeveless shirt) was happy his fruit was enjoyed by all and

promptly said he’d bring more as it ripened. :)

Dasheen, AKA Taro root

My only experience with Taro was as a bubble tea flavor a couple of times, but this is a root that grows abundantly here and I was hankering to try it.  Tibu helped me with this little venture as I had no idea how to harvest Dasheen.  Thankfully he gave me a little lesson on Taro that proved to be very importante.


Looking for dasheen that’s ready to harvest




The taro root resembles yuca, but is more bulb shaped

As with yuca, the outer bark-like skin has to be removed

Inside the “fruit” is white

Tibu explaining what and what not to look for in a good root


I’ve already got my eye on one of the machetes in the tool cave

as it seems I will need to get used to using one for the kitchen if I want

to harvest coconuts, dasheen, pineapples, etc.  Tibu told me I should find

a small machete.  This was his nice way of telling me that as an inexperienced machete

user, I should select one that poses the least amount of potential harm.  I appreciate he looks out for me that way…but maybe he should hear Bobby’s experience with a machete before he starts warning ME. ;)

But that’s another story for another time.  Back to the Taro tuber.

He wrapped it all up nicely in a dasheen leaf and gave me instructions to

not touch it with my bare hands as it stings.  ????!!!!  Is this

common knowledge that only I have not been aware of?  At that point I was wondering whether or not

it was a good idea to consume something that might “sting” me on my hand.  I googled it and discovered

that although not all of the sites I looked at made any mention of it, several websites did advise the use of gloves.  Interesante.

So I donned some latex gloves from the medicine cabinet and proceeded

to wash cut and wash the dasheen as Tibu had instructed.  Apparently calcium

oxalate crystals in the plant make it toxic until it’s been washed and cooked.  Good to know!


Raw, toxic taro root

I felt rather silly with my gloves on where no blood and guts were involved but it seemed

the prudent thing to do, just in case.

Dasheen is a starchy potato like root that I heard had a slightly sweet taste to it, though you can prepare it sweet or savory.  I decided if it was already sweet it made the most sense to prepare it as a sweet dish (plus I have a sweet tooth) and so I washed it twice per my instructions from Tibu and cooked it in coconut milk, sugar and a little bit of salt.  As it cooked, it took on the purplish hue I remembered from my Taro flavored bubble tea.   The results weren’t bad (the kids and Bobby loved it and I think Liz and Terry tolerated it well) though I neglected to take a photo of the final product because I got distracted by this blister on my index finger where my glove had a hole!  I had noticed the hole, but didn’t worry enough about it to get myself a replacement.

I made sure to thank Tibu profusely for the warning as I impressed he and the other workers with my injury, wondering what on earth my hands would have looked like if I’d not worn any gloves at all!

Food.  “Any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth.”  The acquisition and preparation of food around here can be very time consuming, I continue to learn.  The preparation of local foods, the energy and funds needed to make lengthy trips into town, the process of washing and storing and then finally of getting it ready to eat, all use up a lot of time.

So why do we do invest so much into eating?  Well, it’s enjoyable.  Sometimes it’s linked to a social event or is a channel for creativity or to fulfill a quest to try something new.  But the bottom line is we do it because we need to in order to survive.  Uncomfortable hunger pains set in to serve as a reminder to feed our bellies when too much time has elapsed and as a result, I would venture to say that not many of us misses too many meals on any given day.

What if we were so faithful about devoting the same into our spiritual lives, not just our physical ones?  Why are we able to ignore the spiritual “hunger pains” so much more readily than the physical ones?  I’ve challenged myself to spend time with the Bread of Life and His Word before putting food in my mouth every day so that He’s the first thing I think about before I carry on with my day and I pray that it helps me to live every moment of every day, aware of the One who gives us life and breath.  How I need to find ways to feed the most important part of my life in order to “maintain life and growth“!!!  Little else should consume as much of my time in this life, whether I’m in Bocas del Toro, Panama, or Battle Ground, Washington.

What are you feeding yourself?  I really would like to know. :)



  1. Megan Condo
    Jul 28, 2012

    This is my favorite post to date! What an amazing opportunity to show mutual love and respect! I adore the photos of the girls helping and of Ethan, who is HUGE!!! Those eyes are fabulous! Much love, prayers and blessings from us to you! <3

    • Shirlene
      Aug 2, 2012

      Thanks so much for your sweet words, Megan!! We sure appreciate the thoughts and prayers of the our Virginia family as we navigate through this fun journey. I’m envious that you will soon be going to Oregon as that’s my neck of the woods! ;) Bless you guys!

  2. Cam
    Jul 28, 2012

    NICE!! Now Panama’s looking tempting to visit… you didn’t tell me you had a culinary program going on there! ;) I MISS you guys!!! Besos y abrazos para mis little amores!

    • Shirlene
      Aug 2, 2012

      LOL Culinary program? Sorry hermana, that starts once Chef Mimi gets here! ;) Love you hermana. Miss you guys a ton…

  3. Alice Mathis
    Jul 30, 2012

    So Interesting. Thanks for showing how to do the Panamanian dishes. I want to try the recipes. Shirlene is such a hard worker!

    • Shirlene
      Aug 2, 2012

      Alice, thank you for always being quick to respond with an encouraging word! And BTW, I welcome any good recipes you want to pass along too as I’m always excited to try something new. :) Hugs to you!

  4. Bon
    Jul 31, 2012

    Oh my..Yumm! Incredible! what a labor of love each meal is! :) and Amen to your blurb on the importance of the food we feed our souls! Photos left my mouthwatering and wishing to taste that delicious looking food. Talented young men they are! Praying for them. In His time, His love you share will open their hearts, no one who knows you can deny it. Have fun learning the Panamanian culinary arts! :) Loving the blog posts, allows us to keep dreaming of visiting and seeing you all! :) Love & kisses to each of you!!

    • Shirlene
      Aug 2, 2012

      Thanks Bon for always supporting us! We miss you all so much, and yes, let’s keep dreaming and praying for God to make a way for each one of you to come, please!! :) MUA!

  5. Jennifer
    Aug 2, 2012

    Oooo…I feel spoiled with another post! FUN!
    I love the posts about food! It’s fun to learn all about diverse ingredients you are working with. Crazy about the taro root giving blisters!
    Thank you for the encouragement to focus on our real hunger! An area of my life that could use some attention!
    Ethan’s facial experssions make me want to squeeze his cuteness…in a gentle non-threatening way.

    • Shirlene
      Aug 2, 2012

      lol! I appreciate very much friends like you who help make writing blog posts worth it. :) Miss you and am anxiously awaiting what your future holds!

  6. Selim
    Aug 4, 2012

    I’m going to cook all the meals mentioned in this post.

    • Shirlene
      Aug 13, 2012

      That would really make me happy. Then you can come cook for me. :)

  7. Lucy
    Aug 17, 2012

    All the food looks sooooo yummy!!! Shirlene we truly share the same interest :) Food!!!!! I think I fit in right well. Fish, chicken, and rice??? I am in the right place;) I want to try to make that !

  8. Monica J Parkhurst
    Jan 21, 2017

    I am a 5th generation American from Panama. My family went to build the canal and stayed until my brother and I could no longer get jobs due to the treaty. I have dual citizenship and consider it my home even though I have lived in the US since I was 21, which was almost 30 years ago. I love this country so much!! I do cook a lot of Panamanian meals. I just wanted to tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. It made remember again how special my home country is and how much I need to cherish my heritage.

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