Mercado de Abastos – Adventures in Panama

Before we got to Panama, Christina had asked about what we might want to do there. I love to visit food markets and grocery stores when I travel, so she planned for her husband, Patricio, to take us there one morning while she was at work. Besides knowing that this was not Patricio’s favorite place to shop, but the prices were low, I knew nothing about the market. We drove west out of the center of Panama City, which gradually elevated and overlooked a series of apartments that you know are less well off than those in the center of the city, because there is not a single air conditioner visible. The highway continues north and settles back towards the ground, and you pull off the street and are immediately at the market.

20170307_101034You pay to “park” (I forgot to ask Patricio how much it was), which was really just an entrance fee because there was no designated parking area to speak of. The market was a series of stalls, some of which had garage doors to pull down to close them and were about as big as a garage, others had much larger interiors. A few had high ceilings and open sides like a pavilion at a park, and some people were just selling out of the back of pickup trucks. The streets between the stalls were about the width of a large delivery truck, but they were used by said trucks, cars, and pedestrians (many of whom were pushing large dolly’s full of produce) all at once.

img_20170307_105859_555.jpgWe drove at a crawl searching for a space to park, which were really just clear areas in front of stalls that weren’t open. Cruising for a spot gave me time to observe the many stalls, some of which sold an abundance of a single fruit, like watermelon, avocados, papayas, or plantains, or a mix of fruits and vegetables. We followed Patricio as he sought out favorite stands, and selected lettuce, tomatoes, cantaloupe, a green papaya, pineapple, avocados, and passion fruit.

20170307_095759Many pineapple vendors were collected under a large pavilion with their goods pilled on low tables. One of the vendors was holding a pineapple by the greens, and had cut off the bottom and cut around the sides to loosen the fruit. He sliced off wedges and then pierced them with his knife to pass them to us. I had been sold far before the sample, but the incredibly sweet, juicy, tropical and just slightly acidic fruit sealed the deal even further. We sprung for 2 of the larger pineapples he was selling for $2.50.

img_20170307_105552_455.jpgMuch of this experience was cushioned by Patricio, who speaks Spanish as his first language and was familiar with the market. I wanted to try out my Spanish skills, so I went up to a vendor selling a fruit I did not recognize, and asked ¿Que es eso? (What is that?). He responded by telling me the price per pound, which I was fairly certain I hadn’t asked, so I tried again (same response). I think it was impossible for him to fathom that there was a person in the world who had never been presented with a whole passion fruit, or at least learned about them in preschool as I do with kids by showing them apples or potatoes and asking for their name.

img_20170307_110151_433.jpgPatricio was able to identify the passion fruits for me, and I felt I had to buy some. My next challenge was determining which ones were ripe. Some were dark purple and a bit wrinkly, while others were light yellow with taut skin. Another man at the stand was picking them up and shaking them to determine their worth, so I tried handling a few. I was expecting the density of an apple or a mango, but these couldn’t have weighed more than a couple of ounces (maybe they were all ones the other man had already put back). Mostly at random I selected 3 to equal a pound (which cost $2.50 – I knew that!).

Later on in the trip (once I had consumed half of a pineapple), I cut the passion fruit in half to reveal a thick, spongy pith surrounding a dense cluster of gooey seeds. I scooped it out and directly into my mouth and surprised myself with the tartness. Given my lack of passion fruit experience, I chalked this up to picking unripe specimens and not letting them ripen long enough. It was another amusing chapter to my passion fruit story, and I figured I could do better next time.

20170307_100914Later I recounted this to Christina, who laughed and told me passion fruit are tart, and when she lived in the Dominican Republic she watched people cut them open, pour sugar inside, and stir it up before eating. Any passion fruit I had previously eaten was part of a dessert or juiced, and certainly had sugar added before it ever entered my mouth.

I cut open one of the remaining passion fruits, added a teaspoon of sugar, and stirred it up. The seeds are covered by the fruit flesh, and you eat them together. The bright tartness is punctuated by the crunch of the seeds for a very lively eating experience. After experiencing the delight of eating a fresh passion fruit, it is hard for me to justify eating them any other way, which will have to wait for my next adventure to warmer climes.

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Donde Pope Si Hay – Adventures in Panama

Last week, Will and I visited my friend and her husband in Panama City, Panama. It is still their dry season, and it was hot (90F every day). On our second day there, the four of us got up before 7, ate a quick breakfast of cheese on toast, and went to the ferry. We joined a long line of other travelers waiting to get our passports checked and load a small boat to the island of Taboga, 8 miles off the coast.

20170305_081909.jpgWhen the captain asked for English speakers, Will and I were the only ones who raised our hands, a sign that we were in for a true Panamanian adventure. (I do understand some Spanish, but when it comes to boat safety I wanted to make sure I understood all the important bits.) The bay was full of huge cargo ships, waiting for their turn to enter the canal. It took us 30 minutes to get to the small island, and as we approached I couldn’t believe one of my middle school Spanish phrases was useful: ¿Donde está la playa? (Where is the beach?) As the ferry approached, there was no visible sand. Once we docked, you could make out a small corner of beach a 10 minute walk away (which had been shielded by an even smaller island, which was closed off as a bird sanctuary).

20170305_083124.jpgWe walked with everyone else along the narrow street (which doubled as a sidewalk), past small buildings and carts selling popsicles, many fried things, water, soda, and national beer for $1 a can. The beach was a small peninsula, maybe a total of 1/2 a mile long, that seemed incapable of holding the number of people on the ferry I came from (which was one of many to dock during the day). It was nothing like the huge expanses of protected sea shore in MA, that go on for miles and miles.

20170305_105125.jpgI was proven wrong, and as the tide went out the beach got bigger to accommodate arriving ferries. A few people had their own chairs or towels, but for the most part people rented both beach chairs and umbrellas from vendors for $5 apiece. This would get expensive if you went to the beach every weekend, but we certainly appreciated the convenience. Later on in the morning, the wind picked up and the umbrella vendors came around to put an additional stake in the ground in front of your umbrella, which they then looped a string already attached to your umbrella for this very purpose (genius!).

With our spots firmly established, Will and I took a walk back through the small town. The houses were built into the hillside, brightly colored, and very close together. The town square was headed by the second oldest church in the Western hemisphere, Iglesia de San Pedro. Directly in front of the church, in a small, irregularly shaped square, there was a basketball court (make use of the space you have!). We continued walking past the square until we came to a t, then took a left and decided to walk parallel to the way we came.

It was this turn that led us directly to Donde Pope Si Hay, which we had read about in our guidebook as “A simple concrete eatery serving fresh fish, cold green coconut water, and patacones (fried plantains); there is nothing mysterious about Pope beyond its name.” The name is indeed a mystery, as it roughly translates to “Where Pope is there,” but on the signs we saw there was not a picture of the Pope, but of Popeye the sailor man.

It was a good thing we went on our walk, because I have no idea if we would be able to find the spot otherwise. It is on the opposite side of town from the beach, not near other businesses, and there were no street signs. Compared to other structures near the beach, it was much more than a “simple concrete eatery,” with a small covered but open-air dining area containing six or maybe eight tables with white table clothes. Since it was just after 9AM we were not ready for breakfast, and returned to the beach with plans to walk back.

The menu was half a page, with the items they currently offered checked off. Most were fish offerings with different side options. Sadly they did not sell green coconut water any longer, but they did have piña coladas. We ordered the pescado (fish) for $7 and the pulpo creole (Creole octopus) for $9. Service was leisurely, and gave us time to observe the inner workings of the establishment. One younger man took orders of the patrons at the restaurant, answered the phone, and drove an interesting three-wheeled, covered, but open-aired vehicle that delivered food to the beach for an additional $2, or transported restaurant patrons back and forth for free. A woman ran the kitchen, maybe by herself, but we couldn’t see the whole room. The whole establishment could have easily fit within half of a basketball court.

Our dishes came alongside our piña coladas, which were mildly sweet and wonderfully refreshing. We each had our fish dish, alongside rice, a coleslaw-like salad, and twice-friend plantains called patacones (I later learned that I could have ordered coconut rice, but I am trying not to be consumed by this regret). I ate the fish, which was about 8 inches long, very lightly battered, and fried whole. The fish had a crisp exterior, with a mild, white, and flaky interior. Will had the Creole octopus, which was small pieces of octupus (tentacles thinner than a pinky), with onions and peppers in a mild, tomato based sauce. The octopus was meltingly tender, and perfectly complemented by the light sauce. There was a bottle of yellow hot sauce on the table, that was firey, but with a pleasing sweetness. It was especially great on the fish.

We ate slowly, pausing to take sips of our piña coladas to ease the fire from the hot sauce. The small portion of my brain not focused on enjoying the food was thinking: I am living out every fantasy I’ve ever had about eating island food, I am going to remember this forever, and also potentially spend forever trying to find this again, so maybe I should more to Taboga. We cleaned our plates and drained our drinks. I went up to the window to pay, and the man retrieved my change from a cookie tin that was living a second life as a cash register. We went to walk back to the beach, but the man motioned for us to get in his delivery vehicle. The narrow street became more crowded as we approached the beach.

 

 

2017 Food Resolutions

20160730_164413The tradition continues! Here are my 2015 and 2016 food resolutions. But first, how did I fare on my 2016 resolutions?

Cook better with others. This may be a lifelong resolution, but I did make a concerted effort to just let things happen in the kitchen with others (though I maybe didn’t seek out as many of those situations as I could have). The biggest way I improved here was when cooking with kids. They learn so much more experimenting themselves, so I did my best to give them the basics and step back to see what happened.

No longer be afraid of fermenting – I’m not! I made a lot of sourdough bread, and tried my hand at sourdough cornmeal and waffles. I attempted kimchi twice, and full lacto pickles once. My bread ferments were far more successful than my veg ferments. The first kimchi was too salty, and the second too mushy because I left the veg in the brine too long. The pickles were indeed pickles, but I should have tested them sooner and they got softer than I would have liked. So I think it is fair to say I’m no longer afraid, but now I really need to work on being better.

Wasting less in the kitchen. Figuring out how to roll leftovers from one meal into another has become one of my favorite cooking challenges. I’ve been better at checking the fridge to see what should be used up before I plan my meals for the week, and leaving a night unplanned as an opportunity to use up extra leftovers. It has also helped to be less obsessed with everyone having a complete planned lunch (and all three of us eating the same thing). There is always enough for everyone to eat, even if things might be a bit more haphazard than my usual leftovers. I did fall victim to the times something would be pushed to the depths of the fridge and were forgotten about. The next level of this goal is having a fridge that looks like Heidi Swanson’s.

On to 2017 resolutions!

Take on long-term projects. This starts in the kitchen, but translates also to the blog and the rest of my life. It is so easy to focus on short term projects that are quick and satisfying. I want to take more time to do things that can’t be done in a day or a week, whether than involves cooking, writing, or something even bigger.

Read and cook from more diverse books. 2016 put an especially bright spotlight on the need to interact more with people unlike ourselves. The day after the election I was at a loss of what to do with myself, but craved tangible, achievable projects. I made a simple salad with dressing, and then gave my cookbooks a new home (we had moved weeks before and they were all sitting in boxes). I realized I have cookbooks from an incredible variety of cuisines, but the majority of them are by American or British authors writing about another cuisine (such as Julia Child, David Leibovitz, Fuschia Dunlop, Andy Ricker). These voices are still incredibly important, and in many cases brought cuisines and recipes that had never been translated for an English audience. But now the availability of books being translated from other languages is only getting better. Food is a great uniting force, and learning about other cultures through food can only help to lessen our cultural misunderstandings.

Books!

I somehow still keep pushing off The End of Food….but 2017 will be the year! I also didn’t tackle more of The Art of Eating but I have it at the ready.

New this year, it is time for a reread of The Third Plate, plus Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, and Free for All: Fixing School Food in America

Any resolutions in your kitchen? Awesome books from interesting cuisines I should cook from? Books to add to the reading list?