Panama: Three Types of Easter Treats You Won’t Want to Miss15th March 2016
Easter time in North America conjures up images of beautiful baskets brimming with colorful eggs and sweet treats. Kids stuff their faces with chocolate bunnies and cream filled eggs, cute baby chicks made of sugary marshmallow, and Jordan almonds in pastel shades. A good Easter supper might feature hot cross buns and a baked ham or roast lamb, not to mention an assortment of casseroles, cakes, and pies.
But if you’re in Panama, what can you expect? Never fear! As in other countries around the globe, here ‘tis a time for great food and cheer. Easter traditions abound, so get out there and sample some of Panama’s classic seasonal treats.
Culminating in Easter, Panama’s Holy Week or Semana Santa comes around every March or April. The exact dates vary in accordance with the lunar calendar, which is packed with holidays and observances this time of year. First comes the Carnival season (usually in February), then Lent, which is typically a time of sacrifice. Finally, with Easter comes a time for family trips and special meals.
During Lent and Holy Week, many abstain from eating meats such as beef, pork, and chicken, choosing instead to dine on fish. So it should be no surprise that delicacies from the Pacific and Atlantic top the list of popular summertime treats in Panama. But that’s not all! Traditional Holy Week treats run the gamut, from savory to sweet.
Here are some traditional eats to track down during your visit:
1. Fish dishes for the Easter season:
During the Lent and Holy Week season, corvina and red snapper sales shoot through the roof as thousands of Panamanians eschew meat dishes. Instead, they choose cold ceviches or hot preparations al ajillo (with garlic and butter) or a la criolla (a red-tinged annatto sauce of peppers, tomato and onion).
Looking for something a little bit different? The different regions of Panama have their own particular Easter season dishes. In the Herrera province, Lent and Holy Week breakfasts typically consist of polenta-like bollo, a simple farmer’s cheese, and dried or smoked fish known as bacalao. In the Caribbean province of Colon, this dried fish is often served up on Good Friday in escabeche, a vinegary concoction made with veggies and hot peppers.
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2. Unique treats with a twist:
Popular ingredients like beans and yuca are featured in many a savory preparation. But during the Easter season, these ingredients find their way into unusual sweets. A dish that’s typical of Panama’s Caribbean Coast is enyucado. It’s said that this dish originated when Panama was part of Colombia, where this dish is also popular. A cross between pudding and casserole, the dish consists of sweetened grated yucca, fragrant anise seeds, shredded coconut, and crumbles of white farmer’s cheese.
In rural Panama, unshelled cashews are traditionally roasted over an open fire and eaten two days before Easter, on Good Friday. It’s a laborious process that takes hours and a careful eye to ensure the husks blacken but don’t burn.
A unique sweet called cocada is also made with these flavorful nuts. Cashews are pried from the “apples” on which they grow around this time of year. (Each delicious cashew fruit sports a single nut.) They are roasted and shelled—often by hand—then added to a sweet, gooey mixture of coconut and sugar cane syrup spiced with cinnamon. The mixture is allowed to cool, then formed into little molasses-colored balls. You’ll find these for sale all over the Chiriqui province and in other regions during the Holy Week holidays.
Even more unusual is a similar preparation made in traditional towns like Penonome, province of Cocle. Instead of cashews, cooked beans are the main ingredient in this Holy Week sweet, known simply as dulce de frijoles.
3. Sweets with universal appeal:
Two of the most delicious dessert items sold this time of year are bon and bienmesabe. These are labor intensive to make. But as they are made with simple ingredients—no nuts or beans here—they’re universally popular. Present these sweet treats to kids and grown-ups, foreigners and locals…they’re sure to be a hit!
Bon is widely associated with the Colon Province, where it has been popular for as long as locals can remember. With a population predominantly descended from Afro-Antilleans, Colon has a cuisine all its own. During Holy Week, Panamanians all over the country (many of them of Afro-Antillean descent) petition local bakers for bon bread.
Said to represent the bread that Jesus broke at the Last Supper, circular loaves of bon are made with dried fruit, raisins, local cheese, and orange rinds. The dark, molasses coated dough is often topped with a bit of lighter dough in the shape of a crown or cross, to symbolize the life and travails of Jesus Christ. It takes hours to make bon, because the dough is worked and left to rise several times.
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To make bienmesabe, on the other hand, one must be prepared to spend hours at a hot stove. The recipe makes use of the blank palate that is rice—either in the form of rice flour, or cooked and processed to create a rice “cream.” Mixed with raspadura (unrefined cane sugar) and milk, it is cooked down over a period of four hours, stirring all the while to avoid lumps. Once the milk has darkened and the mixture is very tick, it is molded into small circular patties.
As they cool, the bienmesabe rounds take on a rubbery consistency. Traditionally, big leaves are trimmed and used to form the molds. As a result, these sweet treats look like large, caramel-topped pieces of sushi! The best thing about bienmesabe? The name. Roughly translated, it means: “tastes good to me.”
Savory, sweet, or somewhere in-between, traditional Semana Santa eats are fun to seek out and try. No matter which regions of Panama you visit, locals will be happy to tell you about their favorite Holy Week foods and traditions. And if you want them, you’ll be able to find Easter eggs and bunnies, as well. Being such an international destination, Panama has adopted plenty of traditions from overseas.
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