April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Monday, September 3, 2007

Comparisons Part I - Food

There are a lot of things that are very different between Panamá and the US. You´ve probably already noted some of them in our previous posts, but there are a few that have really stuck out to us in our first three and a half months here, so we´re going to start noting some of them. For today, it is differences in Food.

McDonalds: I regret to say I’ve eaten at it more since I’ve been here than in the past several years in the states (which means all of once). It is actually more expensive than in the states, and in at least one discussion, someone here referred to it as a place for rich people, or an expensive meal out. (It is true, you can get tipico, which is typical Panamanian meals, for less, but McDs is still the king of the chain restaurants.) Here in our provincial capital, we found out the other night when the power went out that the McDs has its own power source, as their sign - way up high - was one of the few lights around, and based upon the line at the lighted drive thru, they were doing a booming business.

Hot Dogs: While we haven’t had any in the island, we had bastante (more than enough) salchicas (hot dogs) during training. And they aren’t generally as “good” as the ones in the states. Not sure why, but every time we’re in the grocery, we’re amazed by the sheer numbers of salchicas on the shelf: literally five to fifteen feet of refrigerated shelf space dedicated to a variety of hotdogs. The ways to cook them are endless, but amongst the most common are boiled, sliced thin and cooked in a ketchup sauce, or sliced longways and fried. They are then served with a bollo (a boiled roll of corn mush), with rice, with spaghetti noodles, with platanos, or with yuca, for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They are almost never served in a bun however; the use of hotdog bun type breads (at least in training) seemed to be reserved for squishing flat and ¨toasting¨ in a skillet. (We did see in one mall foodcourt a "Hannahs", which had the font and look of a "Nathans" hotdog stand, but at the time, we were hotdogged out and didn´t try it.)

Fish: In our training community, a truck would drive through with a loudspeaker loudly proclaiming it was selling something indecipherable, which turned out to be "Pek-ow", which in turn really means, "pescado", which is fish.
(Side note on names of animals and foods: in Spanish, they have different names. A chicken is a "gallina", while the drumstick and breast are from a "pollo". Ditto for "pez" in the sea turning into "pescado" on my plate. Of course, "pato" is duck whereever, and "ganado" - cattle - turn into "carne" on the menu, similar to a "cow" becoming a "steak" or "burger", and "puerco" - pig - becomes "jamon" - ham - in the supermarket aisle.)
But we didn´t eat much fish during training.
Since we´ve arrived in the island, we´ve eaten a lot of fish.
That shouldn´t be too surprising, but our first host family on the island did joke about us getting tired of it after about three days of fish and rice for lunch and dinner. (We were only slightly tired of it. :) They had a net set in the waters just off their house, and would check it daily. One day, they brought in 20 different fish, of 15 different types, the vast majority of which I couldn´t identify in English. They are typically 2-3 lbs each. She cleaned them right away (unless they happened to have some ice brought in from the port), feeding the gills, innards, and brains to the chickens, dogs, and cat (who ever was fastest). I even saw one of the fish with a whole sardine, 8 inches long, inside its stomach!
So if you don´t eat it right away, and don´t have ice, how do you preserve that many fish? First they are salted - heavily. Often they are then hung over the fogon (see a post below about cooking) to smoke. Amazingly enough, she would later fry this salted and smoked fish, and we´d have it for dinner, with the salted-smoked-fried leftovers cold for breakfast.
Knowing fish is good for me, and how often we´ve eaten fish, I figure I am pretty healthy right now.

Coconuts: Bastante! There are a lot of coconuts in the island, many of which seem to fall indiscriminately with a loud, dangerous, sounding thunk while we aren’t too far away. Many of them are put to good use, split with a machete or ax so the chickens or ducks can feed on them. (The chickens and ducks both run free in the yards, generally fed on corn from the fields and coconuts. We laugh with our host families about eating coconut-fed chickens.) Yet we really haven´t eaten any coconut meals; no coconut rice, nothing cooked with coconut. In fact, the closest we´ve come to seeing anyone use the coconuts for human consumption has been drinking the pipa or coconut water inside unripe coconuts. (Oh, and as I write the next paragraph, as duros.)

Grapes, cheese, ice cream, yogurt: You may be thinking, "Wow, how do they get all of that on an island without electricity??" And you´d be right. Although one of the tiendas (stores) on the island has invested in a propane-chilled fridge so they can sell sodas, juices, and duros (frozen slices of heaven on a hot day, as long as they are a good flavor; typically they are a blend of water, some local fruit or fruit juice, sugar, and maybe vanilla. Piña (pineapple), coco (coconut), guanabana (no idea), maracoya (no idea), and tamarindo (no idea) are all good; nance is a disgusting fruit and seems to divide Panamaians the way mincemeat pie divides my family at Thanksgiving, so I don´t feel bad about being in the 50% who do not like it.), none of the items in the title are available on the island. So when we are in Santiago for a few days to check the internet or have a meeting, we hit one of the supermarkets (two of which are now open 24-hours!) for a dose of grapes, cheese, and yogurt, and hopefully some ice cream for dessert. Yes, we ate all of these in the states, but it is much more of a feast and famine sort of thing now, with one or two meals typically made of them during our couple of days out of site.

That is it for now in the comparison of foods between Panamá and the US; once we start our own garden and are cooking on our own, I´m sure there will be more, comparing what manages to grow where (tomatos seem to be pretty rare / expensive here!), prices, and other aisles of the supermarkets.

1 comment:

chsbellboy said...

From the little bit of research that I've been able to do, guanabana is I think a soursop, maracoya is a passion fruit, and tamarindo is the same thing in English.
Hope that helps!
~Eric Bell