Street vendors are less common in Panama than elsewhere in Central America. The cheapest places to eat are the ubiquitous canteen-like self-service restaurants (sometimes called cafeterías), which serve a limited but filling range of Panamanian meals for around US$3–4; these usually open for breakfast and stay open late. Larger towns generally have several upmarket restaurants with waiter service, where a main dish may cost upwards of US$6 (from US$8 in Panama City), as well as US-style fast-food places. There is often a seven percent tax to pay on meals; some also add on a ten percent service charge. Large supermarkets in the major cities offer a good range of cold and hot snacks to eat in or take out.
Known as comida típica, traditional Panamanian cooking is similar to what you find elsewhere in Central America. Rice and beans or lentils served with a little chicken, meat or fish form the mainstay, and yuca (cassava) and plantains are often served as sides. The national dish is sancocho, a chicken soup with yuca, plantains and other root vegetables flavoured with cilantro – similar to coriander though more pungent. Seafood is plentiful, excellent and generally cheap, particularly corvina (sea bass), pargo rojo (red snapper), lobster and prawns. Fresh tropical fruit is also abundant, but rarely on the menu at restaurants – you’re better off buying it in local markets. Popular snacks include carimañolas or enyucados (fried balls of manioc dough filled with meat), empanadas, tamales, patacones (fried, mashed and refried plantains) and hojaldres (discs of deep-fried leavened bread). Toasted sandwiches called emparedados or derretidos are also very popular, appearing on most menus, from humble cafeterias to high-end cafés.
The diverse cultural influences that have passed through Panama have left their mark on its cuisine, especially in Panama City, where there are scores of international restaurants – Italian, Greek and Chinese being the most numerous. Almost every town has at least one Chinese restaurant, often the best option for vegetarians. Perhaps the strongest outside influence on Panamanian food, though, is the distinctive Caribbean culture of the West Indian populations of Panama City, Colón Province and Bocas del Toro. Speciality dishes involve seafood and rice cooked with lime juice, coconut milk and spices.
Coffee is excellent where grown locally (in the Chiriquí Highlands) and generally good throughout Panama, made espresso-style and served black or with milk as café americano. The drinking water of Panama City is so good that it is known as the “Champagne of the Chagres”. Iced water, served free in restaurants, along with tap water in all towns and cities except Bocas del Toro, Guna Yala, Darién and remote areas, is perfectly safe. Chichas, delicious blends of ice, water and tropical-fruit juices, are sometimes served in restaurants and by street vendors, and are not to be confused with chicha fuerte, a potent fermented maize brew favoured by campesinos and indigenous populations, who prepare it for ceremonial occasions. Batidos, delicious when prepared with fresh fruit, are thick milkshakes. Also popular are pipas, sweet water from green coconuts served either ice-cold or freshly hacked from the palm tree. Fresh fruit juices are highly recommended, but it’s best to make sure not too much sugar is added.
Beer is extremely popular in Panama. Locally brewed brands include Panamá, Atlas, Soberana and Balboa; imported beers such as Budweiser, Heineken and Guinness are available in Panama City. For a quicker buzz, many Panamanians turn to locally produced rum – Carta Vieja and Abuelo are the most common brands – though the national drink is Seco Herrerano (known as seco), an even more potent sugar-cane spirit. Imported whiskies and other spirits are widely available and you can get wine in most major towns.