Panama Taste Treat

The ability to feed oneself, to be able to “live off the land” is a wonderful thing. I found that out in the hard summer of 1985 when I was living on my houseboat on Bayou Beinvenue outside of New Orleans. I’d been laid off from my job and only eligible for $55 a week in unemployment benefits supplemented by $85 a month in food stamps. I probably should have left the area then, but I didn’t even have enough money to buy gas to get me anywhere that would have been better. The thing that kept me going was the ability to feed myself well from the environment.

Surrounded by water as I was I did a lot of fishing. Once a month I’d buy a pound of heads-on, unsorted (various sized) shrimp for $5. Out of that pound there’d be enough large shrimp to get one good meal. The rest I used as bait, and since I didn’t have a job, and at the time there weren’t any jobs to be had, I spent many an afternoon fishing off my boat’s “back porch.”

I’d catch speckled sea trout, red fish and croakers. I’d fillet them up and freeze them. I also had five commercial crab traps and I’d bait them with the heads and remains of the filleted fish and string them out along the dock. The next day they’d be filled with dozens of delicious blue crabs and I’d spend the day boiling them up and picking out the meat. Though I was broke most of the time (dockage consumed two weekly unemployment benefits) I ate like a king.

When I pass through big cities where people live crammed cheek to jowl like sardines in a can the thought often occurs to me, “what will all these people do if things suddenly turn to crap? How will they ever feed themselves?” There are tons of dystopian novels, like Stephen King’s “The Stand,” where city dwellers flood out of the urban areas in search of food and shelter.

Here in Panama things are a bit different except for the half of the Republic’s citizens who live in Panama City. They’re in the same tough spot and it was brought out last year when the Ngöble Indians blocked the Interamerican Highway cutting the food supply from the country’s bread basket of Chiriquí province to the capital. No fresh vegetables. No milk. But in reverse, no gasoline and diesel fuel got through here, either.

But the people in the provinces are able to feed themselves from what’s around them. First of all, the whole country is filled with free-range chickens. Nearly every family has a flock, so there’s meat and eggs. And as I sit on my front porch here in Boquerón I see mango trees, avocado trees, grapefruit, plantains, yucca, papaya, ñame.

Ñame, which translates from Spanish as “yam” though it isn’t like the yams we know in the States, is, like yucca, is a root vegetable and is highly prized here in Panama. The plant is fast growing and huge

but isn’t harvested until late in the fall after the plant appears to have died. The edible part looks like this…

There was a bumper crop of mangos this year as well as tons of avocados. My neighbors kept bringing me more of them than I could eat. It was sort of like zucchini in the States. People plant a few seeds and then get so much that they can’t eat it themselves and give them away to everyone they know.

The most recent offerings I’ve been getting lately is a small, golf ball-sized thing called, pibá here in Panama.

It’s known by a host of other names as well. In English it’s the peach-palm.

In Trinadad and Tobago it’s called a pewa, peyibay(e), and pejivalle in Spain. and pejibaye in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. In Columbia and Ecuador it’s known as chontaduro or chantaduro, pijuayo in Peru, pijiguao in Venezuela, tembé to Bolivians, and in Portugal it’s pupunheira, while in Brazil it’s pupunha. The scientific Latin name is Bactris gasipaes.

It is commonly boiled; in fact, it is customary to boil the fruits for 3 hours in salted water, sometimes with fat pork added, before marketing. Boiling causes the flesh to separate easily from the seed and usually the skin as well, though in some varieties the skin adheres to the flesh even after cooking. It is only necessary to remove the skin from the cooked flesh which can then be eaten out-of-hand. The pre-boiled fruit is sometimes deep-fried or roasted and served as a snack garnished with mayonnaise or a cheese-dip. It is also mixed with cornmeal, eggs and milk and fried, and is often employed as stuffing for roasted fowl. Occasionally it is made into jam. Oven dried fruits have been kept for 6 months and then boiled for half an hour which causes them to regain their characteristic texture and flavor. Peeled, seeded, halved fruits, canned in brine, have been exported to the United States. Dried fruits can be ground into flour for use in various dishes. A strong alcoholic drink is made by allowing the raw, sugared flesh to stand for a few days until it ferments.

Since it needs to be boiled for so long it’s not something I want to do very often, burning off that much gas, but practically every household around here has an outdoors shelter where my neighbors cook over a wood fire.

It has a wonderful nut-like flavor that I couldn’t quite put my finger on the first time I ate one but I’ve finally settled on it being a bit like an artichoke heart. They’re yummy.



Filed under Uncategorized

2 responses to “Panama Taste Treat

  1. Capt Dan

    Interesting and useful stuff. Glad to hear you’ve got such nice neighbors – undoubtedly because you’re a good neighbor yourself. I’ve never heard of peach-palm let alone tasted one. And, even if I could get them here in Jupiter, I doubt that I’d be willing to boil them for three hours unless you could convince me they’re really good.
    Perhaps this is another example of “an acquired taste.” Now, in my experience, this is usually a very polite way of saying it tastes, looks and/or smells absolutely terrible unless you’re born “here” and have grown up eating “whatever.” Aussie vegemite comes to mind. I have had some small experience in this arena, and have two other modest examples of such to share with you.
    I have two adult children who live in Sweden and have spent a great deal of time there. In Sweden, they have something called surströmming. Improbably, this is made from herring fish that have been buried in the ground for 6 months or so, and while buried, ferment (a nice word for rot) mightily to say the very least. The fermentation somehow preserves the fish and if you’re really, really hungry (and hold your nose very tightly) you can eat it and not die. This was perhaps a wonderful new way of preserving food for the Vikings that used to come raiding on England and Scotland a zillion years ago.
    Today, a can of surströmming is never opened inside – always outside in the garden. I know this to be true because I’ve personally observed this at my daughter’s house near Helsingborg. The cans bulge grotesquely (from the ongoing fermentation) and look like they could explode at any minute, thereby raining very stinky, very rotten fish and shrapnel on anyone within range. (Better to be hit by the shrapnel in my humble opinion.) This is the most extreme example of acquired taste in my personal experience. It looks, tastes and smells absolutely horrible.
    I found it culturally interesting that “A Japanese study has shown that the smell of a newly opened can of surströmming is the most putrid smell of food in the world, beating similar fermented fish dishes such as the Korean Hongeohoe or Japanese Kusaya.” I have no experience in either of these foods – but would be willing to give them at least one shot as I did with surströmming. However, I assure you one shot was enough and more than most could bear.
    The pot calling the kettle black.
    The foregoing was interesting to me because the Japanese also make something called natto. Fermented and perhaps sexually abused soy beans. I found an apt description a while ago: “Natto resembles bits of hardened fox feces anchored in snot.” I had a Japanese girl-friend in college who brought some from home after Christmas vacation and convinced me to try it. I give you my highest assurances that this too is an acquired taste. And, a culinary experience I don’t wish to repeat.
    My latest new food discovery is something called dragon fruit. I assure you it’s not an acquired taste and if you get a chance to have some, please do yourself a favor and dig in. It’s about the size of a large pear; grows on a cactus, ( is not the same as a cactus pear!) has strange looking leafy tendrils and is absolutely delish. You simply cut it in half and scoop it out with a spoon. Texture is a little bit like kiwi, has a million eatable seeds but tastes better. Publix sells them – so it’s getting to be pretty main stream in Florida.
    Question: I just got two crab traps and expect to have some on hand very soon. How long do you boil them? Just tap water or did you add seasonings?
    Thanks. Hope your back feels better.
    Capt. Dan

    I don’t know if I could top surströmming, but the worst thing I ever put in my mouth was Lutefisk when an old girlfriend and I went to spend a Christmas with her parents in Minnesota back in the dark recesses of time.

    Lutefisk is made from dried whitefish prepared with lye in a sequence of particular treatments. It has the consistency of what your nose produces during a severe bout with a nasty head cold. It is absolutely disgusting!

    As Garrison Keillor describes it in his book Pontoon (which I listened to from “Lutefisk is cod that has been dried in a lye solution. It looks like the desiccated cadavers of squirrels run over by trucks, but after it is soaked and reconstituted and the lye is washed out and it’s cooked, it looks more fish-related, though with lutefisk, the window of success is small. It can be tasty, but the statistics aren’t on your side. It is the hereditary delicacy of Swedes and Norwegians who serve it around the holidays, in memory of their ancestors, who ate it because they were poor. Most lutefisk is not edible by normal people. It is reminiscent of the afterbirth of a dog or the world’s largest chunk of phlegm.”

    He also wrote: “Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I’d be told, “Just have a little.” Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.”

    Pibá, on the other hand, taste pretty good. As I said, they have a slightly nutty flavor and remind me of artichoke hearts in flavor but not consistency. But the three hour cooking time does preclude wanting to try cooking them on your stove. Of course here in Panama I’m living in a culture much different than what we’re acquainted with in the States. At least three of my neighbors here, and one in Potrerillos Arriba when I was living there, have small structures behind their houses where they do a lot of cooking in the traditional way over wood fires. So, if you get a big pot of water boiling over a wood fire it’s not a real problem to boil something for three hours.

    Even so, it makes one wonder about the first people to eat these things. To begin with they’re as hard as rocks. Who the hell came up with the idea, “hey, I bet these things would taste really good if we put them in boiling water for most of the daylight hours?” Sort of like my post

    It makes you wonder about people. Archeologists say that North (and South) America was populated by Asians who came across a land bridge eons ago. Think about the Eskimo’s ancestors. What kind of idiot crosses the land bridge into what’s northern Alaska and says, “Hey, what a great place to live! All the seal blubber a person could want, no trees to worry about, and if grandma’s not feeling well we can just put her on an ice flow and the polar bears will take care of the rest.”?

    • Capt Dan

      I too have been subjected to lutefisk and concur it’s awful. Both lutefisk and surströmming were ways of preventing starvation in an area with short growing seasons and long brutal winters.
      You didn’t get around to my question.
      Question: I just got two crab traps and expect to have some crabs on hand very soon. How long do you boil them? Just tap water or did you add seasonings?
      Capt Dan