When two single Jewish women arrive in Panama for a week, they can
expect to eat very well. They will be wined and dined every evening by
the sons of the friends of the parents of the friends who are hosting
them. Even if the makeshift matchmaker network isn’t hard-pressed to
marry people off, gastronomic pleasures aren’t hard to find, even in the
most unexpected of settings.
The country is home to 8,000 Jews
and at least ten kosher restaurants. Outside of Israel and New York,
Panama just might have the highest per Jewish capita kosher restaurant
rate. And with such a small, close-knit community, someone always knows
someone who can introduce you to the someone you want to meet.
Especially if that someone is Ayelet Vahnish, chef and co-owner of Darna, the fastest growing restaurant group in Panama City.
And, if you’re lucky, that chef will gladly share her recipe for ceviche.
fish dish “cooked” with citrus juice instead of heat is believed to
have been introduced to Peru by Spanish colonizers bearing European
limes. These limes, new to the New World, were incorporated into the
Incan practice of preserving fish in fermented fruit juices. The basic
recipe of seafood, citrus, and salt quickly spread across South and
Central America, each community adapting it with local ingredients and
preferences. Traditionally a firm white saltwater fish called corvina is
the main ingredient, but scallops, shrimp, and other shellfish are also
commonly used. Some add onion, peppers ranging from mild to hot, mango,
sweet potato, or corn.
The version served at Darna, like most Panamanian ceviche, consists of corvina marinated
in lime juice, salt, habanero pepper, onion, and celery and served over
a bed of lettuce. After a few hours in the refrigerator, the fish
transforms from translucent and jiggly to opaque, white and firmas lime
denatures the corvina proteins.
The first bite hits you with citrus acid, pepper heat, and celery crunch
surrounding the cold chunks of fish. Unless you were told, you’d never
know that fish failed to meet flame.
Restaurants aside, a trip
to a Panamanian grocery store is nearly as exciting an adventure as
boating through the famous Canal alongside container ships and risking
monkey attacks in Gatún Lake. Sitting innocently among the bananas and
papayas are fruits over which you could recite a shehechiyanu
prayer at the Rosh Hashanah table, blessing the novel and unusual
experience of eating an unknown treat to start off the New Year.
of these fruits have inedible exteriors that, once opened, reveal
sumptuous flesh. There’s purple mangosteen and its sweet fibrous arils.
There’s also red or yellow tomate de arbol
(also known as tamarillo), which in cross section, resembles a tomato
with black seeds. When scooped from its skin,it yields a succulent juice
ranging from tart to sweet depending on whether the exterior is red or
green longan in grape-like bunches whose thin shells crack open to
reveal a translucent orb of flesh that hides a single black seed and has
taste as puckery as a too-tannic wine. And finally, pixbae (pronounced
pibá), orange palm fruits the size of apricots that, once boiled and
peeled and sprinkled with salt, have a starchy quality and taste similar
to a very dense potato.
of the city and after the usual tourist destinations, you’ll find more
food surprises on the road less traveled. Well, less traveled by
visitors, more traveled by the locals. The Inter-Americana Highway, part
of the Pan-American Highway connecting North and South America from
Alaska to the tip of Argentina, meanders through Panama along the
Pacific Ocean and connects Panama City to the under-developed, largely
private, beaches of Santa Clara.
about the midway point of this two-way, sometimes more-dirt-than-paved
“highway,” traffic slows to a stop as passengers open their doors,
leaving the drivers at the wheel,and get on the long winding line at Quesos Chela. This cheese shop makes all their products on the premises, ranging from small mozzarella bocconcini balls packed in water to smooth creamy yogurt-like labne with sumac to firm queso canasta
easily recognized by the ridged impressions made by the basket (canasta
in Spanish) in which it is molded. To boot, their products are kosher.
The locals fill up their coolers and grab baguettes and sweets and run
back to the car that has barely advanced. Traffic eventually lets up as
the Quesos Chelasign fades away. At the beach, a picnic is laid out and the feasting begins.
the vacation draws to a close, you pack up your bathing suits and
cameras and make one last stop at Darna Bread en route to the airport to
pick up a sandwich and a cookie to extend your epicurean journey until
the last very minutes when your plane touches down in your home town.
And those two single women? They may not find love in Panama. But they will find plenty of fish.
is seafood “cooked” with citrus juice instead of heat. In Panama,
ceviche is made from corvina - a white, firm fleshed saltwater fish that
Ayelet Vahnish, said can be replaced with grouper, sea bass, halibut, or
red snapper, or, in a pinch, tilapia. Ayelet provided the recipe as she
makes it in her restaurants – in batches large enough to feed 10 people
with 5 pounds of fish and about 1 liter of lime juice. She explained
that Panamanian ceviche differs from others in South American with the
addition of celery and extra onion.The recipe was adapted to serve 2-3
people, replacing celery with jicama and adding a little extra habanero
Make sure to use the best quality fish you can find
(sushi-grade fish is ideal), as you will be eating the fish “raw.” If
you want to be absolutely authentic, serve leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk – the juice that remains after the ceviche is eaten, which is sometimes mixed with a dash of vodka.
1/2 pound firm white fish per person (e.g., grouper, sea bass, halibut, red snapper,or tilapia)
1/4 large onion chopped per person
1/4-1/2 habanero pepper per person (the smaller the pepper, the hotter)
2 limes per person
1/4 C chopped celery per person
For 2-3 servings:
1.25 pounds firm white fish (e.g., grouper, sea bass, halibut, red snapper,or tilapia)
1 small red onion
1 large habanero pepper (seeds removed)
1 small jicama
Dice fish into 1/2-inch cubes and place in a large glass on other
non-reactive bowl. Finely chop the onion and add it to the fish. Wear
gloves to chop the pepper as small as you and then, holding onto the
knife with both hands (one hand on the handle, the other at the opposite
tip), use a rocking motion over the pepper to mince it really finely.
Add the pepper, lime juice, and several large pinches of salt to the
fish. Gently toss everything together.
for 3-4 hours before serving to let all of the ingredients marinate.The
fish is ready when it firms up and turns opaque white.
before serving the fish, peel jicama and dice into 1/4-inch cubes, add
to fish, and toss. Serve the ceviche over romaine leaves.
Gayle Squires publishes recipes and photographs on the blog, Kosher Camembert. Her cooking and baking is inspired by international travel .