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Produce in Panama - A Tribute to the Mundane

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Written by Matt   
Tuesday, 21 October 2008 09:25
Panama Farmers MarketsWhen I was about six, the thought of vegetables disgusted me. I remember one night sitting at the dinner table before a professional basketball game, when my father offered to reward me with one box of popcorn for every green bean I could throw down my hatch. I ended up finishing the entire plate and, true to his word, my dad bought me about twenty red and white boxes at the snack stand that sat lined up on our kitchen shelf like a series of unread novels. At first I remember looking at the boxes with pride, much the way warriors might regard a string of severed heads. But eventually, as the boxes began to collect dust and the popcorn became stale, a feeling of embarrassment overwhelmed me, considering the small naked children I had seen between Sunday cartoons would only see scenes like this in their dreams.

Whether it was a direct result of the popcorn incident or not, I began to eat vegetables on a regular basis and even at one point declared myself a vegetarian. Until, that is, I realized that vegetarians weren't allowed to eat fish sticks or steak at which point I dropped the act.

Getting good vegetables in Panama is surprisingly difficult. Because refrigeration is so expensive, things like crispy lettuce and delicate arrugula have little chance surviving the Panama humidity. When I envisioned tropical Panama, I foresaw heaps of exotic fruits and vegetables hanging from doorways like mobiles. I saw wreaths made of dried chilis and mounds of domestic spices that not only looked, but smelled exactly like the tropics. It was fairly disappointing therefore, when, upon arriving to Panama, I discovered that the fresh food scene was relatively mundane.

Most great cities have amazing markets, and while Panama does have several unique ones, it is entirely void of the type of mishmash souk we've come to associate with urban international living. In a market on Las Ramblas, I remember being approached by a woman offering samples of wild dandelion croquettes and thinking their name sounded like a leisurely sport. In Union Square, I tasted a fiddlehead fern that only blossomed two weeks per year, which tasted like a nutty wad of grass. At a market in Brussels, I tasted twelve different strains of the heirloom tomato and near Fisherman's Wharf, I remember a sign reading "This way: over 140 stalls dedicated to morelles." I didn't even know what morelles were at the time, but I knew 140 stalls that were "dedicated" to them sounded simply wonderful.

There are several markets in Panama that offer fruits and vegetables in addition to supermarkets such as El Rey and Riba Smith. One that chiefly strikes my fancy, not because it's exceptionally spectacular, but rather because there are weird things to see, is the public market out towards Albrook, where I saw a man sleeping under a layer of cardboard sheets, a small electric fan pointed directly at his feet. Not unlike an empty bottle of whiskey, next to him sat a hollowed-out watermelon rind that acted like a prop relaying the message Take Charge of Your Life.

While the majority of the produce at this market is pretty straightforward (as in, nothing will jump out at you as particularly exotic), there is a decent variety and everything is very fresh. The outdoor portion of the market is divided, like a little ghetto, into districts, each featuring (in excess) some sort of fruit or vegetable. My friend Kent, an eternal optimist, is always amazed at how good all the food looks. But when stacking grapefruits twenty feet into the air, how can it not look good? The surrounding areas at this market are littered with dusty roadways, trash, and puddles: a proverbial harvest wastelands.

Panama City simply doesn't have the culinary sophistication as many other great cities of the world. The small pockets of truly exotic or hard-to-find ingredients are known (and coveted) by restaurateurs, many of whom use their own private farmers in the interior. For the most part, produce markets in Panama feature the very basics of ingredients, and a shitload of them: cucumbers, peppers, garlic, tomatoes. Don't expect any croquette samples or fiddlehead ferns or heirloom tomato families or displays of morelles: for in Panama, an old man, drunk on watermelon, passed out beside a heaping load of ginger root is about as exciting as it gets.

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So true
written by Sammy , October 21, 2008
I am a self-proclaimed foodie and this article is dead on. The only places I find my fruits and veggies is organic shops where they cost too much. It's surprising that, for such an "international hub" that the food scene here isn't more developed. The fish market is fun, the veggie place next to the food market is cool too. But in reality, like Matt points out, there's almost no eccentric hodgepodge market that city-livers around the world NEED.
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Options
written by Arthur , October 21, 2008
Some alternate options (though they are "slim pickins"):
Organic in Punta Paitilla, Super Kosher in Punta Paitilla, Bal Harbor Shopping Center, Super Kosher in Multi Centro, stands on the side of the Interamerican Highway and the market in El Valle
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Allan
written by Allan , October 22, 2008
Sad but true. I had similar thoughts on the overflowing abundance of fresh produce that I thought would come from Panama. Well, I guess one can eat banannas and root vegetables all week. To make things worse, the few vegetables that are available when ordered from some restaurants are so over cooked that it begs the question, Are we trying to kill some kind of bacteria? I did visit the Volcan region and did get to see vendors sellinng their vegetables on the road but most were of the root vegetable type. Lucky the coffe is great. Can one survive without veggies and plenty of good java?
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The best leaves the country...
written by Matheo , October 24, 2008
Unfortunately, most of the BEST produce leaves the country.

I have friends who are in the pineapple business for an example and they sell all the best pineapples as exports because IT PAYS MORE. Panamanians and expats get the scraps usually.

No-non-sense Matt
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Fruit Market!
written by Beth , October 31, 2008
I agree, it would be GREAT to have some more convenient, fresh, and organic produce around here, as I am also quite a fruit and veggie lover.

My favorite spot is the Abastos Market near Albrook, where you can stock up on fresh fruits and veg, I suggest to get the best stuff, go often and learn your vendors names. They personally save me the best of what comes around and even take orders for me and have them ready to go if I don't have time to shop around, they are good people to know! Find Javier for fruit and John for veg if you want good service. Javier's papayas all come from an organic farm.

Make sure to try some cherimoyas and tree tomatoes...MMMM

So, its not a market in the middle of Italy in the summer, I'll give you that, but you CAN find good produce, and you definately can't beat the price! Mounds of pineapples for $1?? Eat your heart out.
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Last Updated on Tuesday, 21 October 2008 09:28
 
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