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?