The way to a Panamanians heart is, I’m sure, through raw ﬁsh! Ceviche or cebiche is to Panama what pasta is to the Italians or baguettes are to the French, and I was determined to ﬁnd the reason behind the popularity of this cured cuisine!
This lovely, simple dish comes in many diﬀerent forms and I made it my culinary mission whilst in Panama to attempt to sample as many versions of them as possible! Similar to tartare or Tahitian salad (made with coconut milk), all are wonderful and ﬂavoursome forms of preparing raw seafood. Considered by many as the national dish of Peru (introduced by the Moorish women from Grenada), Panama gives this theory a good run for its money as it is everywhere in this area of Central America!
Ceviche is a dish made by ‘curing’ or cooking raw seafood by adding controlled amounts of citrus juice (lemon or lime), then spicing the dish by adding basics such as coriander, chilli, onions and salt. More subtle versions are equally delicious as it enables the true straight from the sea ﬂavour of the ﬁsh or crustacean to shine through, encouraging the relaxed ‘boat to brunch’ style of dining. I was fortunate to taste a lobster ceviche once @Santa Rita Restaurant in Casco Viejo, (the Old Town in Panama City well known for its excellent restaurants and bistros) and also an octopus (pulpo) version …both were delectable! Excellently accompanied by a buttery chardonnay or a crisp, passionfruit noted Sauvignon Blanc, it must always be consumed fresh to eliminate the risk of food poisoning or tourist tummy but in my travels, this can be argued…
Whilst driving through Panama on our way to Costa Rica (see Blog) I became aware that this local fare can be purchased from various petrol stations as an on the go snack du jour! Stored in a fridge and packed in little plastic take away containers, various versions of ﬁsh, shrimp or octopus ceviche are for sale for your road trip feast.
However, at one particular service station, much to my horror, I discovered that their in house ceviche fridge was actually TURNED OFF! So after opening, the repulsive and repugnant smell of warm seafood on the turn was left behind in its wake! Yummy! A trip to the local hospital or a dose of Salmonella poisoning anyone? Happy holidays! Being the concerned, good citizen that I am, I quickly alerted the uninterested proprietor behind the counter (using a mixture of bad Spanish and gesticulations) to this downright dangerous situation, but he didn’t seem to care! Dios mio! I greatly pitied the next person to partake in this hotbed of thriving organisms and make it through the day!
The ‘doomed’ ceviche fridge! On the go snack!
But this was a one oﬀ event and my tastebuds were truly satisﬁed on many occasions after enthusiastically devouring plate after plate (or glass) of this tangy and tart crude dish. I did taste one form of shrimp ceviche that was strangely doused in a sweet and sour tomato sauce, and that failed to hook me with its bizarre overpowering ﬂavour! In countries where you would normally encounter fast food outlets or family run side of the road diners perched alongside highways, or in the backstreets of small towns, Panama however, graciously provides many Cervicheria’s (ceviche restaurants) for you to enjoy! Panama City has a laid back ceviche restaurant as part of their Mercado de Mariscos (seafood market) where a street food version is served in paper cups with a side of either french fries or plantain chips
Fish Market in Panama City
This country prides itself on the abundance and liberal usage of the fresh seafood that is hauled from its Caribbean and Paciﬁc oceans, and you are considered odd if you haven’t tried this dish at least once or order it as an entree or as part of a tapas spread! Many times I have been urged by
waiters in various establishments to ‘try the ceviche as we make the best’! I will continue to enjoy and will never tire of the fresh ﬂavours that ceviche delivers and have great appreciation for the many revered Panamanian chefs and cooks who use a light handed touch when tenderly, respectfully and skilfully preparing this popular mouth-watering delicacy every day.
Have a craving for a dish of raw ﬁsh…there’s a Cervicheria near you!
Me hard at work!
…”That ﬁsh is so raw, it’s still looking for its son!”…Gordon Ramsay