Cooking and eating through a new culture

The Panama Parallel

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Yea we’re runnin’ a little bit hot tonight I can barely see the road from the heat comin’ off of it.

Sorry. Still got the song in my head. Seriously, how can you not be happy in Panama. Granted, when the friends you are staying with have a palatial home overlooking the valley, not to mention a sweet little private rental on the ocean too, its tough to wipe the dopey smile off my face. I had an amazing time, with amazing people. It’s not often that things work out so beautifully, and you have no idea how thankful I am they did.

Certainly, the whole trip got me thinking. I am seriously smitten with Panama but it was funny to observe the differences between the two countries. Now, I never got to go into Panama City. I bounced between the highlands and the ocean, so this is not a comprehensive view. So keep that in mind. I’m still getting my bearings in Costa Rica and it’s been over a year and a half.

The first thing that really struck me was how puny the local farmers market was as compared to Costa Rica. Not only small, but not necessarily that fresh either. On the rare occasion I saw brocoli, it was brown and limp. Even the fruit was off, or should I say, not to Costa Rican standards. I was baffled. Here I was in the middle of this amazing tropical valley, and the mangos looked nasty and a guanábana cost over $5!  Go into a local grocery and you will see endless amounts of canned food from every corner of the world and a teeny space for fresh produce. I needed an explanation and this was the consensus:

Because of the canal, Panama can import food cheaper than it is to grow and because they can import anything, what you get is an enormous amount of shelf stable food. Add to that, Panamanians don’t seem to eat fresh vegetables either. It’s a very starch based diet; yucca, potatoes, yams, cassava, some pasta and tons of rice. Even the ubiquitous red peppers (chili dulce) were absent in Panama. The protein is chicken/eggs, or fish. I saw little beef and next to no pork.  My recommendation to the traveler coming to Panama, go for the fish. They may not grow a lot but they certainly know how to fish and I had some amazing seafood. Also surprising, I thought the street food was rather…meh. Think lots of rather bland starch and canned meat.

Overall, Costa Rica has a wider diet, better fresh selection, and many more options for those who are conscientious eaters. People raved about Panama being cheaper, but in the long run (and because I don’t really eat a lot of shelf stable food) I found prices to be about equal, if not more for certain fresh products. While doing a grocery run with my hosts, I commented on how cheap booze was. It’s nearly half the price it is in Costa Rica with double the selection. I saw a bottle of excellent Scotch $20 cheaper than in the US! As explained by my friends…that is why people are so happy in Panama. The US influence in Panama is evident everywhere, especially in the developement of infrastructure. Panama just looks nicer. Then again, I am hanging out with great people, drinking good booze, swimming in the ocean, trekking through the jungles, having an amazing time…what’s not to love!

As I set back to Costa Rica, the rainy season started. The trip back was uneventful. I wore the Panama hat I bought for Rafa’s birthday as I bobbed around the bus station looking for him over the groggy throngs and eager taxi drivers. I am so happy when I see him I nearly cry.

“I didn’t see you get off the bus,” he says squeezing me,  “but I saw this Panama hat weaving through the crowd and I knew that was my girl.”

It’s good to be home.


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4 thoughts on “The Panama Parallel

  1. Nice pics. I may want to reblog some of your material the future on our small startup site (if you would like to review our site it’s If that would be OK please let me know. Of note, by looking at your blog it appears that you may be the type of person we are trying to reach with our startup. If you’re interested please take a look at our site. As we are just starting up any feedback you give would be greatly appreciated. Cheers

    • Thanks for reading! I reviewed your site and it looks interesting too. I am trying to get CCR out more often gearing it towards the new food movement I am seeing here in Costa Rica. If this is something you feel would benefit your readers, I think it would be cool to connect up. Granted I tend to be a little gritty but I try to be fair and balanced as well. As long as you recognize my blog, you may use my pictures too.
      Good luck and keep me in the loop!

      • Gritty is fine. Honesty is a virtue. That said, I spent some time in Costa Rica recently and 80% of what I ate was Casados. Where is this new food movement of which you speak?

      • In my short time here I have been seeing the expansion of the Costa Rican palete. I have watched Automercado slowly expand their products to include Asian, Indian, as well as European items. The local cheese industry is producing things other than the ubiquitous white, squeaky cheese like fresh mozzarella, ricotta, and chambret. There is an organic chicken farmer at the Zapote market. The organic movement has spawned markets all over the valley with vendors making the finest quality products I have ever seen in gourmet shops back stateside. The best part of it all is that it is Tico driven. Sure CR has the image of crazy hippy expats importing these ideas, but they have stuck! So maybe it’s not a “new” movement, but a growing one. And it is wonderful to see. In fact, there is an artisan beer festival this weekend! These are things I never would have thought of happening, even only a year ago, and I am so excited to be a part of it!

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