Plenty of fish in the Panama Canal

Come to the Table: Chef Gayle Squires explores the wonders of Panamanian kosher cuisine.

August 1, 2012 14:10

Panamanian ceviche. (photo credit: Gayle Squires)


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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.

This 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.

Mangosteen (Gayle Squires)

Many 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 yellow.

Tamarillo (Gayle Squires)

Next, 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.

Longan (Gayle Squires)

Outside 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.

Quesos Chela (Gayle Squires)

At 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.

When 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.

Panamanian Ceviche

Ceviche is seafood “cooked” with citrus juice instead of heat. In Panama, ceviche is made from corvina - a white, firm fleshed saltwater fish that Darna Chef 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 heat.

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.

Basic ratios:
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
kosher salt
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)
4 limes
kosher salt
1 small jicama
Romaine lettuce

Chop. 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.

Panamanian Ceviche, before marinating (Gayle Squires)

Chill. Refrigerate 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.

Right 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 .

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