The fourth province we’ll visit in our gastronomical tour of Panamá is Chiriquí, who’s name translates to “Valley of the Moon” in the indigenous language. Chiriquí is the third most economically important province in Panama, and renowned for its captivating geography. One can travel from the beautiful beaches of the Pacific (like Las Lajas beach, a popular surf destination), to Barú volcano (the highest elevation in Panamá) on the same day.
I must confess that my affinity toward this province goes beyond what a few lines can express. I’ve always said that I was born in Panamá City, however my heart is Chiricano. Not only is Chiriquí geographically beautiful, the highlands also enjoy a pleasant climate, which cools as you ascend northward from the provincial capital of Davíd. Chiriquí is famous as an agricultural powerhouse, producing everything from cattle to corn, and world-famous coffee.
Each region of Chiriqui has its own unique style of cooking. For example, the highland communities of Boquete and Volcán feature more culinary diversity than lower-elevation areas like Dolega and Davíd due to the difference in climate.
Chiriquí is the second largest producer of banana in Panamá due to decades of farming and exportation by corporations such as the Chiriquí Land Company. The Chiricanos have mastered the art of supplying exceptional agricultural products to the most demanding markets in the world, including North America and Europe.
Of the grains and legumes grown in these lands, we must mention rice, beans, frijoles chiricanos, and pigeon peas. The latter, when paired with rice and marinated chicken, is one of the preferred dishes of Chiricanos and visitors alike.
Plantains, like corn, are a dietary staple of this region, and incorporated in various forms into the three daily meals.
Fruits, vegetables, and grains are all harvested here as well, and known for their excellent quality – both in their growing conditions, and in the masterful agricultural practices carried out by the Chiricano farmers.
Chiriquí is renown for it’s excellent cattle, and is known nationally and internationally for producing very tender cuts of beef. This province also produces the highest percentage of milk in the country, and is also the only producer of freshwater mountain trout in Panamá, which is an excellent choice for Celiacs.
Various varieties of cassava are also produced in Chiriquí, which is known nationally for being a key ingredient in the preparation of carimañolas. This traditional Panamanian dish is a meat pie made with a fritter of mashed cassava which is filled with ground beef or chicken then fried, and usually eaten during breakfast.
Among other Chiricano dishes worth mentioning is the delicious tamal de maíz nuevo (tamale of new corn). Unlike traditional tamales which utilize old corn, the tamal de maíz nuevo mixes young ground corn kernels with flour, which is then seasoned with aji criollo (bonnet pepper) and coriander, lending a very unique flavor.
Almojábanos is a dish of which I have fond memories from childhood. Ground corn and white cheese are worked together, then fried in a pot of oil, and the result is heaven for the palate. For those who have lactose intolerance, lactose-free cheese is a fine substitute for which we have many options here in Panamá.
The aniillo of maíz nuevo is another sought-after Chiricano specialty, (which is similar to what English speakers might refer to as cornbread, except for it’s very supple and dense).
And I cannot fail to mention seren, which is a soup made with corn that’s first milled, then left to thicken. When the soup has reached a creamy consistency, marinated chicken or beef is added for a hearty and delicious meal.
Bienmesabe is a well-known Chiricano dessert which is based in milk, but which can easily be made in a lactose-free version (think a creamy custard-type treat made with brown sugar and flour).
Among the typical drinks of this region is chicheme, which is made using old corn, milk and cinnamon. After a long process of cooking, the mixture is left to rest and cool, and can be incorporated with any meal.
Chicha de maíz nacido is a drink originating from our native culture in which corn is placed in a container until germination. Once sprouted, it’s milled then cooked with brown sugar, and left to cool. Once it has fermented, it’s used as alcoholic beverage in the countryside, and served with fresh water and ice.
Chocao de plátano is a beverage made from super-ripe bananas, which are cooked until they become red. Milk is added to liquefy the mixture (as always, you can substitute lactose-free), and it’s finished off with a bit of sugar, resulting in an unrivaled treat.
The regional beverages mentioned above are common in the day-to-day lives of many Chiricanos, and each one involves a process to produce the finished product. We cannot, however, neglect to mention the delicious natural fruit juices of this region like pineapple, orange, strawberry, cherry passion fruit, among others.
I must confess my gratitude to two pure Chiricanos – my grandmother and beloved father for having given me this content about the products of my beautiful Chiriquí. My grandmother is known in the family for her delicious homemade Chiricana recipes, which are applauded by all. Her gift for cooking having been cultivated solely through the school of life, and the motivation of nourishing seven children and a husband. Although it’s true he was the provider, it was her mission to captivate the family with food, and has remained so to this day.
As we have seen, wheat flour is not a large part of the Chiriquí diet, and this region offers a rich variety of options that Celiacs can enjoy worry-free.
We’ll see you next week, when we’ll get to know the province of Darién.