The best Panama foods you simply have to try

When it comes to destinations around the world revered for their culinary finesse, Panama probably isn’t the first country to come to mind. But don’t let this little-known foodie hotspot fool you. Panamanians have long appreciated the country’s abundance of scrumptious, must-try bites and beverages—and now travellers are finally catching on, too. Whether you’re exploring pulsating Panama City or making a beeline straight for a tropical beach retreat, here are the 14 best Panama foods you won’t want to miss.

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1. Guacho

What do they eat in Panama?” you might be asking yourself. Well, begin your culinary exploration of Panama cuisine with a hearty bowl of Guacho (pronounced Wah-cho.) Similar in style to a risotto, Guacho is a slightly soupy rice dish filled with regional vegetables, yucca, and meat or seafood. You’ll find this Panamanian specialty on the menu at most local restaurants. That said, the seafood Guacho with coconut at Maito—one of the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America—is easily Panama City’s most scrumptious.

2. Carimañola

Travel through Panama, and you’ll quickly discover that fried food reigns supreme throughout the region. Embrace the tasty culinary tradition and hope to burn off those extra calories later with all the Panama sightseeing you’ll be doing. Of the many delectable, deep-fried options, Carimañola is perhaps one of the most popular. Small, handmade yucca balls are stuffed with ground meat or cheese before heading to the frier for golden, crispy perfection. Grab a few for breakfast or a midday pick-me-up while exploring the best gay Panama City has to offer. Just be sure to order more than one—there’s a reason why Carimañolas is one of the most popular foods in Panama.

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Sancocho is best enjoyed after a night of overindulgence; locals claim the healing soup to be the ultimate hangover cure

Sancocho | Photo: Gastronomy

3. Sancocho

When in search of traditional food in Panama, it doesn’t get more iconic than the country’s national dish: Sancocho. Broth, vegetables, chicken, and a side of rice are a few of the key ingredients in this typical Panamanian soup, but it’s the abundant use of local culantro spice that reigns supreme. Not to be confused with cilantro, culantro boasts a stronger smell and flavour with slightly sweet undertones. Sancocho is best enjoyed after a night of overindulgence; locals claim the healing soup to be the ultimate hangover cure. If anyone asks you “what is the national dish of Panama?” you now know the answer.

4. Ceviche

While ceviche is not an exclusive Panama food (most Historians agree it first originated in Peru), it remains one of Panama’s most beloved seafood dishes. Here, the ceviche is typically made from Corvina, a local Sea Bass, or shrimp. It’s tangy and citrusy, ideal for a light, refreshing lunch on a hot day in the tropics. When in Panama City, make a beeline for the Mercado de Mariscos, an outdoor fish market serving up some of the freshest, most affordable ceviche in the city.

Photo: Maarten Van Den Heuvel

Ceviche | Photo: Leo Roza

5. Ropa Vieja

Of all the iconic Panama foods to try, Ropa Vieja may very well be the most well known. Shredded beef is simmered with tomato, garlic, onion, cumin, and oregano, and then typically served with white rice and fried, smashed plantains. Legend has it that Ropa Vieja (which translates to old clothes) originated in Spain long ago when a poor man ran out of food and was therefore forced to make a stew out of old, shredded garments. You’ll find Ropa Vieja across Central and Latin America (it’s Cuba’s National Dish), but the local version remains a tasty staple and definitive must-try food in Panama.

6. Tamal de olla

If your travels take you to Panama over the Christmas season, don’t miss the opportunity to try Tamal de olla, a flavoursome food of Panama featuring European ingredients like raisins, olives, and capers—a testament to the country’s Spanish colonial past. Unlike traditional tamales wrapped in plantain leaves, Tamal de olla is a casserole-style dish baked up in the oven. The best Tamal de olla is prepared at home around the holidays, though some local restaurants in Panama City have a yummy version on their menu year-round; El Trapiche and Tinajas are two consistent fan-favourites.

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7. Arroz con pollo

When it comes to typical food in Panama, it doesn’t get more classic than arroz con pollo. Easily recognizable for its yellow hue and shredded chicken, you’ll find this simple yet satisfying rice dish on nearly every local menu in Panama. This is another traditional Panamanian food that makes an appearance throughout Latin America. Still, there’s no denying that “The Crossroads of the World” that is Panama serves up a mighty fine local variation.

Arroz con pollo | Photo: Louis Hansel

8. Patacones

A common accompaniment to many local Panamanian dishes, Patacones are hard green plantains that have been fried, smashed, and then fried once more. They’re typically warm, salty, and slightly chewy, and are particularly mouth-watering when heaped with meat, cheese, and local sauces. For an upscale take on the hearty staple, Peach Fuzz International features Patacones with Garlic Octopus, a flavour combination that’s as exquisite as it sounds.

9. Empanadas

A deep-fried snack absolutely bursting with flavour, empanadas are savoury pastries stuffed with ground meat, potatoes, or cheese. There are countless hole-in-the-wall bakeries where you can get your empanada fix, but some of the best are found at Artisana, a smart cafe in the Bohemian neighbourhood of El Cangrejo.

Empanadas | Photo: Patryk Pastewski

10. Hojaldre

For a typical Panamanian breakfast, pick up a Hojaldre. Round, flatbread is fried to crispy and airy perfection and then paired with sausage or cheese, or topped with cinnamon or sugar. This Panamanian food obsession is surprisingly light and airy; it’s a dream when paired with a mug of velvety hot chocolate.

11. Raspao

Panama’s take on a snow cone, a raspao consists of shaved ice topped with sugary flavoured syrups. Do as the locals and add a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk to make this decadent dessert next-level delicious. You’ll find raspao street vendors just about anywhere you go; we recommend cooling off with this rejuvenating treat while ambling around the highlights of Panama City.

Raspao | Photo: AW Creative

Photo: Susannah Burleson

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The national liquor of Panama, Seco Herrerano is an 80-proof spirit derived from sugarcane

12. No me olvides

No list of Panama famous foods is complete without mentioning No me olvides. This ice cream parfait begins with a biscuit, continues with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, and is then topped off with Chantilly whipped cream and “Grandma’s secret sauce.” The original recipe is found at Panama City restaurant La Inmaculada—dubbed by many locals as the best ice cream in the world.

Photo: Toa Heftiba

13. Chicheme

While sipping a beverage made of corn and milk might not sound thirst-quenching, there is nothing quite like an ice-cold cup of Chicheme on a steamy Panamanian day. This creamy, sweet drink is typically flavoured with vanilla, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Some of the best are found in La Chorrera, where the drink is believed to have originated. Or head to Quesos Chela, a small bakery in Capira renowned for their cheeses, empanadas, and—you guessed it—ridiculously tasty Chicheme.

14. Seco Herrerano

The national liquor of Panama, Seco Herrerano is an 80-proof spirit derived from sugarcane. Think of it like the cachaca of Panama, strong yet smooth alcohol that is best enjoyed in cocktails—especially when said cocktails include fresh passionfruit or watermelon juice. Our top tip? Head to one of Panama City’s chic rooftop bars to soak in the dazzling nighttime views over intimate conversation and craft cocktails. ¡Salud!

Panama City | Photo: Yosi Bitran

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