I love Panama, Boquete especially. Nearly every day I see a rainbow. Now, during the rainy season, it’s usually sunny in the mornings then clouds over and rains in the afternoon, leaving the valley where I live at the base of a volcano lush, green, and incredibly verdant.
Although I have recently had some exceptions, the food in Panama is nothing to write home about. As someone pointed out to me, “How many Panamanian restaurants have you seen anywhere else in the world?”
Ok, good point. Although I am by no means suffering in terms of food choices, it is true: Panamanian food is not typically so good you want to call up somebody and tell them to come down to try it.
There are a couple exceptions. Patacones are green plantains, squished flat and fried to make a savory delicious alternative to a French fry. In the Caribbean, they make their rice with coconut milk instead of water, which gives it the delicate flavor of coconut without any of the heaviness that coconut cream would provide.
A couple weeks ago I was invited to a potluck down the road. The men who live in the house are all foreigners, and several of them play online poker for a living. One of them – the first one I met, after seeing him weekly at the market where I get all my local organic vegetables – and I struck up a conversation about Mexican food. Nate is from Sonoma County, and I suddenly found myself craving a good dose of tacos after even a short conversation with him, so we made a plan, and a couple nights ago I went to their house for a Mexican cooking night.
I made fish tacos and all the trimmings. Nate made an amazing batch of carnitas that all of us stood over, picking pieces out of the pan as we waited for everything else to be finished, burning our fingers and our tongues, but totally unable to stop.
We also had pico de gallo, beans, and homemade tortillas. We made them ourselves because we didn’t feel like we had any other choice: we made them ourselves because the Mexican-style tortillas here are crap.
Tortilla refers to different things in different Spanish-speaking countries. In Spain, a tortilla is almost quiche-like: it’s a combination of eggs and potatoes boiled in olive oil, that can be cut like a pie when it’s finished. In Panama, a tortilla is a disk of cornmeal, presumably mixed with some sort of lard or oil to get it to hold its shape, then deep-fried. A Mexican tortilla is either corn or flour, and at least in the States is THE tortilla: it’s not called Mexican, it’s just a tortilla, and it’s used to wrap all manner of goodies.
They sell Mexican tortillas here in the grocery store; the large expat community must demand it as a staple. They sell them, but they’re gross. Either the corn tortillas are cardboard-like, or the flour ones – disdained by most Mexicans as a gringo version of a real Mexican tortilla anyway, unless it’s used to wrap a burrito – are usually Old El Paso brand, which, for those looking for a real experience, will not do.
So we made our own – or rather, Nate’s roommate John did. John is another transplant from Sonoma County, and formed a couple dozen of them using Maseca – a corn flour mix that thankfully IS available here – and the bottom of a Tupperware container, for lack of a tortilla press.
The meal was delicious – one of the best ones I’ve had since coming to Panama. More than the food, however, was the camaraderie, not just of foreigners constantly discussing the merits of Mexican food as they cooked, but of a people trying to find their niche in a new place, of bringing a little bit of the cultures they had experienced in with them, and, let’s face it, the shared understanding that sometimes the best that life has to offer is not in where you are, but what you bring with you, and whom you share it with.