Saturday, May 10, 2008


Don's Chiriquí Chatter blog is, as far as I'm concerned, THE resource on all sorts of food places, good, bad and indifferent. We check it out for new restaurant reviews. I remember the time we wanted to know where you could get the best hamburger in town. Contacted Don, he pointed us to TGIF--and sure enough--it was terrific.

But overall, I have to say that the restaurants in this area are disappointing. There are a few good ones but no place really special.

And what is worse, so much típico food that you find in restaurants is terrible. This was a major disappointment for me, since I was used to Brasilian food where even in the cheapest dives in the northeast, you get terrific food. Anyone who wants to tout Argentinian beef over Brasilian beef--meet me in the nearest coconut grove at dawn, BBQ grills at the ready.

That's in restaurants. Casera (home) cooking is very different.

We've been the grateful beneficiaries of both the cooking and culinary lessons of Maritza Espinosa in Potrerillos. I feel right at home--Maritza, like all my Italian female relatives, feels that there's something wrong with you, probably life-threatening, if you don't eat three times what is necessary to fill you up.

What has been revelatory is the number of ways you can use corn.

First, tortillas. Like most non-Hispanic Americans, I suppose, when I thought about tortillas while living in the US, that meant Mexican-style. I know I was rather smug about the fact that I preferred the corn tortillas--but still, it was the flat Mexican style.

So, I was unprepared for tortillas Panamenian style. I'm not big on fried foods, and my initial introduction was in restaurants. Not impressive. For a long time I resisted what I did see of the corn tortillas.

We live close to a very good mercadito, and from time, we'd see packages of ready-to-fry tortillas in the store. We finally bought some, and discoverd that we did like them. Still...

And then came the day when Maritza made her own. She ground the corn in a special grinder that looks like the one my mother and I used to use when we made Italian sausage. An old-fashioned, hand-crank grinder, except that this one is designed to grind corn. It's called a molino, which is Spanish for mill.

She made us some of the most delicious tortillas I have ever eaten, bar none. She gave us a ball of masa, and we had a gluttonous time the next week frying up our own tortillas.

Then there are bollos. These are cylindrical rolls of masa, wrapped in bijao leaves. That's our plant in the picture; you can see two boldos to the right--medicinal plants. After wrapping them, you boil them for an hour or more depending on what's in them.

I've had strictly corn bollos and I've had them with a spicy chicken and chopped vegetable mix. I've also had bollos from masa mixed with cheese. I love them all.

There was the empanada lesson. You make flat discs out of the masa, and the way to do that is to pat them between your hands. Well, I had seen enough Western movies that showed Navajo and Mexican women doing that, but sort of tossing the masa back and forth between their hands in a flip-flop manner. Not to be outdone, I started going that too--and because I'm incorrigible, I called out to Maritza, "Soy indigena!" Evidently, I provided more entertainment that way than the TV, because Ricardo came rushing in from the living room, as did their two grown children, all of whom, including Maritza, wound up laughing hysterically. Somehow I don't think I made a convincing Ngobe Bugle woman. We were taught the correct way to fill, to seal, and to fry.

There's lots more, but what I want to end up with is a Potrerillos specialty, called churú--I think. Spanish spelling is even more phonetic than Portuguese, and that's sure what it sounded like even though it's rare in my experience for a Spanish word to have the accent on the last syllable.

Anyway: it's a sort of soup, but what a soup!

One of Maritza's aunts and her husband, who have a farm, had slaughtered a pig. If there is one thing common to peasant economies around the world, it's the use of all parts of an animal. And I do mean all parts. I once had a really funny conversation with Maritza and Ricardo when Maritza asked, entirely too innocently I thought, if I liked mondongo. I replied rather tartly that I didn' like tripe in Italian food, although it was one of my father's favorite foods, and I certainly wasn't going to eat it Panamanian style! Again, Joyce the clown. Provided no end of hilarity for her and Ricardo.

I can't remember if I've seen it at Rey or Super Baru, but if you go to the more Panamanian-oriented stores, it's not unusual to see a pig's head, usually split in half. We often see one at our local mercadito. I'm sure it's used in other ways, but as we discovered, the pig's head, brains, and some of the meat go into this dish.

But first, the day before, Maritza put in kernel corn into a huge pot and cooked it for 8 hours on her outdoor wood-fired stove (fogón). She cooked it even more the next day while the kitchen help--us--chopped and diced I can't even think how many heads of garlic, peppers, and onions. It took us hours. That went into the pot, as did the meat, to cook even more. At the last, Martiza put in oregano.

By that time, her aunts and their husbands, some cousins and others had drifted in. Ricardito and Marizin, the Espinosa children, showed up. We all sat down to steaming bowls of what turned out to be delicious soup, with Ricardo teasing us by eating the pig brains and smacking his lips at us, grinning all the time adn telling us how delicious it was. His son turned a little green and his daughter refused to look. Modern-day chiriquenos. Maritza despairs about her daughter because she says that Marizin can only cook what's in a package from the store.

But if you were careful of what ended up on your spoon, it was excellent. We took some home with us, enough to make several days' lunches.

The Espinosas have an incredible garden, and grow much of their own food, which they share with us. We'd have our own chayote vine by this time if Ethel, our black Lab, hadn't uprooted and eaten the last one. I've liked yucca since I first met it in Brasil, where it's known as macaxeira; Ricardo gave me two yuccita plants which are supposed to produce a finer tuber that will give a rich creamy paste. I have 3 aji pepper plants growing, thanks to Ricardo; they're very small peppers that have a different taste from ordinary ones, and are supposed to be very good with meat.

So, little by little--poco a poco--we're learning how to cook and eat Panamanian style. But I think it's going to be a while before we attempt churú!

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