By Emmanuel Laroche, VP Marketing & Consumer Insights, Symrise NA
My history knowledge of Panama stands in four lines. The Spanish discovered the Isthmus of Panama during the 16th century. The country became independent in the 20th century. The French started the creation of the Panama Canal towards the end of the 19th century. The Americans finished it at the beginning of the 20th century.
Still a visit to Panama was on my bucket list. I remember when I was a kid in France learning about the French building the Suez and the Panama Canals in History class. I learned recently that it was not completely the truth for the ladder. In fact the Americans built it! Anyhow I guess I was about height years old and my imagination wandered about these faraway places. With no TV in the house, I had obviously never seen any documentaries on the topic - only a few old pictures of massive ships slowly moving through narrow locks, carrying people and goods between two oceans, between two worlds. The images I created in my head fascinated me!
I now fast forward to our Symrise “Sabor in America” initiative. I discovered then that Panamanians were the 6th smallest group of Latino in the US - the largest population of Panamanians residing in Brooklyn and South Florida.
In 2011 I met Chef Adolfo Garcia. Originally from Panama he has a series of great restaurants in New Orleans. Chef Adolfo Garcia shared his passion from his native country. He gave me a lot of great recommendations for my trip.
Donde José: Today's Panama’s Most Unique Culinary Experience
If you ask someone about Panama’s cuisine that person would say that it probably involves rice, beans and tropical fruit. There is not real Panamanian culinary identity. It is true that Panama is a young country that got its independence a little bit more than 100 years ago. It is clear that Chef José Olmedo Carles is changing the game and is telling Panama’s cuisine to the world.
I felt privileged to sit at the Chef’s table at Donde José. My good friend Chef Adolfo Garcia from New Orleans recommended me to Chef José Carles. There are only two services per evening and only 16 seats in the restaurant. It’s a gorgeous small non-descript old building at the corner of the Avenue Central and Calle 11, at the edge of Casco Viejo. No name outside, so it is easy to walk past. All this just felt very exclusive.
“At Donde José we serve food that talks about Panama. Our philosophy is to tell off “stories”, stories about our country; its ingredients, its traditions and its influences. Every night we are serving sorties, with the aim to share them out and learn something more about Panama.”
The menu is a little squared card including the text above on the front. A black and white picture of three boy à contre-jour (silhouetted against the sun) in front of a piece of Panama skyline and the following “Echando Cuentos”. In the back: Ñapas, Cunetos Salados and Cuento Dulces.
Chef José Carles is extremely passionate about Panama, its local ingredients and local process and he definitely likes telling stories. The first story is an “exta” (ñapa). Tortilla de maíz y guiso de tomate ahumado = corn tortilla with a smoked tomato stew. The wood of a local tree called “nance” was used to smoke the tomatoes, which gives the sauce a distinct characteristic.
Chef José explained that smoke is a common flavor in Panama. A lot of people in villages outside of Panama City still use wood to cook. Two other dishes from the menu have an identical smoke profile: “Sancocho ahumado” and one of the desserts, “No es lo que paresce”.
Sancocho Ahumao – Smoky Sancocho. In this recipe the typical ingredient in a sancocho, the pork, was replaced by an old hen and finished with culantro. The most unusual place for smoke is its incorporation in the whipped cream used in the deconstructed “fake” apple pie where chayote is used instead of apple. The crumble is made of plantain and dry hibiscus is sprinkled on top.
I discovered two interesting new fruit: jobo and pixbae, both from Panama. The fruit pulp of the jobo is either eaten fresh or made into juice, concentrate, jellies, and sherbets. The fruit exist in other Latin American countries and in Southeast Asia.Pixbae is a fruit of a palm tree found in Central America.
Jobo is featured in the dish called “El Ñamffle y sus accompanamientos” a DIY one bite snack with three elements: a sweet potato waffle, a jobo jam and a yogurt based spread mixed with restaurant hot sauce plus local basil. Pixbae is a fruit layer in a tostado called “De aqui, de qllq, de todos lados” as tostado is found in many cultures. This dish has multi- layers on a yucca chip and garlic guacamole topped with grated pixbae.
Another common theme throughout the tasting menu: the contrast of textures!
Smooth, creamy and crunchy in the “Tributo al Caribe”. Smooth and creamy from the pig feet ceviche with truffle. Crunchy from the spicy pork cracklings!
Smooth and crunchy in “Una cosa Chino-Panameña”. A corn dumpling with sofrito covered with fried onion puree and crunchy fried plantain. And elderflowers sprinkled on top!
I learned a Panamanian acronym that night: A.P.C. Arroz, Poroto y Carne. Rice, Bean and Meat: a classic in most Central American countries. Chef José created his own interpretation of A.P.C. A rice “bread” cooked in beer with just the right level of crispy overcooked rice crust, black bean and bone marrow sauce and grilled octopus!
Every dish is a version of a traditional Panamanian dish, but with José’s unique style and flavor!
Also available with the dinner is a drink pairing, which I did not do. I did enjoy a unique tasting cocktail though. “Cha Madre” – an infusion de seco with hierba Buena, picante, mint and limòn.
Next week, you will have the privilege to read a complete interview from Chef José Olmedo Carles on in-sight.symrise.com.