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Panama in Review 3: Food and Drink

March 14th, 2010 2 comments

One of the main perks of heading south for the winter is the fresh produce factor.  Due in no small part to reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which follows the exploits of the author and her family to eat locally and in season for an entire year, I’ve lately kept my choices in the produce aisle pretty narrow during colder months.  (You could, I suppose, argue that I’ve been brainwashed by locavore propaganda, but I’m content to tow the line for perhaps no other reason that, sure enough, tomatoes do taste bland and mealy when you have ’em in the dead of winder–I don’t doubt that fresh veggies have a stereotypically bad rap with kids due to their now commonplace out-of-season mediocrity.)

So to be in a growing region of mangoes, bananas, and pineapples after 2 months of tubers and other root vegetables is quite a treat.  Or at least it should be.  Perhaps it’s just a symptom of island life, but the produce pickings were kinda rough on Bocas del Toro.  There were papaya and pineapple to be enjoyed, but it just wasn’t the delectable bounty that we found in Guatemala (not even any big dudes brandishing machetes ready to hack that coconut to an edible state).

But that’s not to say the food was a total bust.  The pineapples were delicious, especially when bored out to make way for a top notch pina colada.

The greatest culinary gem I found was a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the main drag of Bocas del Toro, named Chitre.  Pony up $3.35 and pick between pork, beef or chicken, and a sweet older lady will serve you up a full, balanced plate of your meat of choice with sides like spiced rice, homemade coleslaw, or a funky pasta salad (on the lucky days there are little bowls of cilantro’d lentils).  It’s like a lunch lady Doris style experience, only AWESOME.  A number of locals had told me that the great local food to try was the rice, so I think Chitra was the most authentic, day-to-day Panamanian cuisine that I found.  I wish an eatery like that existed here in the US.  Super fast, super cheap meals that are all of filling, balanced, and utterly delicious.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure all the food there was made with love.

For the meat eaters, there’s an interesting general trend that I noticed which juxtaposes with what I found in Argentina: Argentine beef was exquisite, while Panamanian beef was tough and flavorless.  Conversely, Argentine pork was nothing to write home about (it’s true, check out my blog series about it–not a word about it), but anything with pork in Panama was fantastic.  Argentine angus, Panamanian pigs.  I wonder if every country has a meat-based strong suit?

Categories: Eating Well, Travels Tags:

Keeping up with Hummus Afficionados

February 1st, 2010 1 comment

Last night Tracy and I took a walk through the neighborhood and to the Whole Foods half  a mile away: just an excuse to stretch our legs.  Already flush with groceries, we decided we’d pop in and get just one item as a momento of our trip.  But what to get?

While in Chicago I had a most excellent hummus provided by my host Tom.  So I called him: “Tom, boobie, I’m at the Whole Foods playing Millionaire, the question is which hummus should I get and I’m calling you in as my life line.” I said emphatically into my cellphone whilst wandering the aisles.  To my delight he replied just as emphatically “Sabra’s, baby, it’s gotta be Sabra’s.  If they don’t have Sabra’s, you need to go shake whoever’s in charge and ask what the heck’s wrong with them and their obviously two-bit operation.”

There’s no Sabra’s on this shelf.  What now, boss?  Aside from the shaking part, I mean?  “Get the good stuff.  Spend the extra 50 cents and get the good stuff.  I’ve used dish detergents that are 4 bucks apart and there’s no perceivable difference between the two: not the case with hummus.  50 cents gets you into a whole new realm of hummus.  Get the good stuff.”

Right on then, the $3.39 hummus it is.

After a few more tips from Tom on how to be a big hummus serving stud (get mini pitas and cut ’em into chips and oven bake ’til warm, squeeze fresh lemon on the chips, with a scissors cut little ends off of fresh dill over the whole thing), it was time to check out.  “Did you find everything ok?” is a common expression of check out clerks.  It’s so often delivered as rote that I will usually unconsciously reply “Yep” to, regardless of how I actually fared while wandering the aisles.

This time though, to Donovan the checkout clerk I had presence of mind enough to reply with a more thoughtful “Actually no, I’m told I should get Sabra’s hummus and that any self-respecting place should carry it, but I couldn’t find it.”  It was then that Heather, the groovy night manager who was hanging at the end our our lane ready to bag our paltry three items (hummus, mini pitas and a lemons: Tom ma’ man, you would do well on commission), chimed in to school me on the brands of hummus that her store proudly stocks.  “You’re looking for a great hummus?  Come with me, we can exchange that one out for you.”

Now that’s some good customer service: we wandered back to the sad, Sabra’s-deprived shelves and she pointed me to her favorite choice for a really creamy hummus (Wild Thyme Natural’s).  THEN we wandered to another part of the store with the more specialty items, where they stock their most expensive brand, Yummy’s Choice.  “Here you go, we’ll exchange your original one for the Wild Thyme, and I’ll sample this one out to you so you can give it a try.”  Sweet, bonus hummus!  Score one for speaking up and believing that they actually care when they ask you if you found everthing ok!

And the hummus treat itself?  Turns out the Wild Thyme tasted significantly better than the Yummy’s Choice (too much tahini!), and Tom was right: warmed pita chips are made most excellent with a few drops of fresh squeezed lemon juice.

Categories: Eating Well Tags: ,