Few Americans are familiar with Panamanian cuisine. It’s a specialty of chef Saul Umaña, the culinary director at Panama’s Islas Secas resort, situated on a private island 20 miles off the country’s Pacific coast.
“Panamanian cuisine is cosmopolitan, full of history, heritage and tropical flavor with Afro, Asian, Spanish, American and Indian influences,” says Umaña, who was raised in neighboring Costa Rica. “That’s why the flavors that we use are full of tradition and history.”
Umaña says it’s very difficult to name his favorite Panamanian dish, because the cuisine has such a wide variety of flavors and traditions. But then he mentions guachito, a dish based on rice and broth, sometimes known as a Panamanian risotto.
“It is truly delicious,” Umaña says. “We pay homage to it at Islas Secas by making different types of rice to enhance the history of the dish.”
What might be a sample menu for a guest during a stay at Islas Secas, which offers seven casitas priced at $2,500-$12,000 per night during the current off-peak season?
“For breakfast, you will have to try the hojaldra, a typical Panamanian breakfast served with a piece of tenderloin, a poached egg, tomato sauce, chombo pepper and sautéed onions,” Umaña says. “Then you would have to try my delicious corn waffles, inspired by the traditional Panamanian bollo (a bun made from corn, yuca or potato). We serve this with a passion fruit hollandaise sauce, two poached eggs and crispy bacon.”
For lunch, the chef recommends “the seafood stars” for starters, Panamanian ceviche and clams, as well as carimañola (a yuca fritter filled with meat) and empanadas. For a main course, he recommends the catch of the day, pulpo al coco (an octopus risotto with yuca and coconut milk), jerk chicken or seafood black rice.
“For dinner,” Umaña says, “I always change the menu for a five-course meal, using the local products with my own twist. You would also experience a private beach barbecue, a delicious meal with Panama’s popular smoky flavor that we cook in front of our guests.”
Anyone wishing to sample Panamanian cuisine without visiting Panama might try KC Gourmet Empanadas in Manhattan, Umaña suggests. The restaurant offers numerous unique empanadas, including one with mussels, squid, clams, octopus and shrimp, and another with macaroni, three types of cheese and smoked bacon.
“The restaurant is led by chef Karla Cruz, and reviews say it has the best empanadas in New York,” Umaña says.