While the northern most countries in South America (Columbia and Ecuador) have some delicious food creations like their crunchy corn and potato empanadas, I must begin by jumping straight to the mysterious and fantastic food paradise of Peru. We had heard for months about the incredible cuisine of Peru and especially the foodie capital, Lima, which is famous for its innovative ceviches and modern seafood creations. What we didn’t expect to find was fantastic, Peruvian influenced comfort food which we soon discovered was available almost everywhere. Continue reading
It is not surprising to me that Panama is often referred to as the crossroads of the world. Panama is an incredible place full of modern conveniences and progressive thinkers. Like all places in Central America, the people appreciate their accomplishments but still have great respect for their time honored traditions, achievements and of course their national recipes.
Ask any Panamanian what their national dish is and you will get one of two responses: Sancocho de Gallina or Ropa Vieja. Both of these dishes are a pleasure to eat and interesting to learn about.
Sancocho de Gallina is a soul coating chicken soup made with an incredibly savory broth and a variety of veggies including name´ (yam), yucca, corn on the cob, onion, squash, garlic and potato. There is also a delicious blend of herbs including oregano and a local herb called culantro (not to be confused with cilantro) which gives the soup its unique flavor and color. It is, as most things, served with white rice on the side.
Panama has experienced many tumultuous intervals throughout its grand history. There have been political uprisings, conflicts with the many countries that tried to control the country and its people and of course the economic recovery that occurred after the Noriega invasion. The many ingredients in this soup are meant to represent the extremely important racial diversity and unity Panama has achieved.
Ropa Vieja is an incredibly delicious dish of stewed shredded beef brisket in a savory, comfort inducing sauce. The slow braising of the meat and the combination of tomatoes, onion, cumin, oregano and wine make this a dish I would happily eat on a weekly basis.
Ropa Viejas roots reside in the Canary Islands. These islands were the primary midway stopping point for the many Spanish and Latin American ships that went to and fro across the sea. This is inevitably how Panama, along with many other Caribbean islands, ended up adopting the basic recipe (along with Canary Island immigrants) and making it part of their food culture.
The name Ropa Vieja literally means “old clothes”. The most popular story about how the dish received its name is about a family that was hosting their extended family for supper. Though the family was very poor and rarely had enough food for themselves, they invited the extended family over to be their guests. Realizing that there would not be enough food for everyone, the father went to his closet and began ripping up his old clothes to add to the bubbling beef stew. Because the father took this action with a heart full of love, the clothes miraculously transformed into beef and the entire family was able to eat to their hearts content.
There are quite a few stories about the history of the baleada, the most popular Honduran street food. The most interesting that I have heard goes as follows: There was once a woman from La Cebia who sold delicious wrapped tortillas. One day, out of nowhere, she was assaulted and was killed by a bullet. The word for bullet in spanish is balas. The woman was so adored for her cooking that from then on when people went to a restaurant they would say, “we are going to the baleada” (baleada in spanish means literally, shot woman) instead of “we are going to a restaurant” in honor of her. Today, a baleada is a homemade, wheat flour tortilla that is thicker than traditional tortillas. It is most commmonly filled with mashed red beans and cheese. A super baleada typically has scrambled eggs, sour cream and a choice of chicken or ham. Once filled, the tortilla is folded in half like a crescent moon and toasted lightly. I prefer mine without meat and topped with local Honduran hot sauce. Baleadas are a super affordable way to get in some good local eats, especially if you are eating on the go.
When walking down any street in Belize you will be hard pressed to find a restaurant or food stand that doesn’t have stew chicken listed on the lunch board or menu. Every Belizean learns how to make stew chicken at a young age by carefully watching a mother or grandmother flawlessly prepare it in the family kitchen. As our hotel owner Lydia said to us “If you are from Belize and don’t know how to make stew chicken, you aren’t Belizean”. After asking around for a while, the consensus was that the Cozy Corner restaurant was the place to go to get our first taste of Belizean stew chicken. We were not disappointed, to say the least. Walking into the mostly open air restaurant we could smell sweet peppers and chili paste perfuming the air like incense. Not totally sure we were going to love it, we ordered one plate to share. About 4 minutes later we were presented with a gigantic plateful of coconut scented rice, fried plantains, coleslaw, red beans with chilies and the queen of the plate, succulent, red stained, stew chicken. One bite in and we immediately regretted not ordering two plates. The chicken was so tender it literally fell off the bone and the delicious creole flavors of Belizean Season All, garlic and Recado Paste were addictive. After speaking with the chef, I found that the process of making stew chicken is much simpler than it seems. The key is to soak the chicken in vinegar prior to cooking. This not only adds a unique flavor but also tenderizes the chicken. After rinsing the chicken it gets a thorough rub down with black pepper, garlic powder, Complete Seasoning and a touch of Recado Paste. Once the chicken has released its juices, remove it from the mixture and brown it on all sides in a skillet with coconut oil. Add the previously set aside drippings from the chicken rub to a separate skillet with more Recado Paste and water, bring to a simmer to create a gravy. Once the gravy begins to come together, add sliced onion and sweet peppers. Once the chicken has been browned on all sides add it to the gravy. Add more water if necessary to cover the chicken. Simmer on low until ready to serve.
If you ever have the chance to sample stew chicken, I am sure you will echo Daniel’s eloquent sentiment, ¨damn it’s good, damn it’s gone¨!
There are many things that make a country unique and beautiful. There are the obvious things like the geography, the history and the people, but my personal favorite is the food. In this section I hope to introduce you to the local flavors of the countries we are visiting, i.e the dishes that we believe to be the most famous or popular of the local cuisine. Some of them will be delicious and simple and some maybe won’t. Either way I am excited to dive in and explore one yummy dish at a time with you.