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Panama is a developing nation. And as with most developing nations, its vestiges of culture, tradition, and history are often challenged by the magnetic bells and whistles of modern day globalization. Some of Panama’s institutions face extinction so it can be particularly satisfying to consume them, while we can, at an unusually high speed all in the name of preservation.
I am starting to get a little tired of the ceviche diet but it’s the same type of tired I feel in the middle of a long swim. I can and will persevere.
With this in mind, I decided to eat ceviche at the fish market for 9 days straight.
One could argue that ceviche is the cornerstone of Panamanian culture. And while they would struggle in a debate, the case does have merit: ceviche is the epitome of authentic Panamanian fast food and fast food is the epitome of New Age Panama. For 9 days, I embraced this mantra and consumed ceviche like it was going out of style.
Panama City’s fish market has recently been expanded and it now boasts an outdoor strip of ceviche shops open until about 10PM.
Today I begin this journey with my friend Blayne who introduces me to his favorite stall called “Ceviches y Cocteles Place.” It is the first stall you see when entering the parking lot. At a glance, all the stalls look very similar. They all have the following common characteristics: large hand-written menu, a few chairs, some type of drinks cooler, and a fairly unhappy person serving ceviche from a large iced tub. I order the ceviche de langostinos because I’ve never had it before and $3 seems like a reasonable price.
Ceviches y Cocteles Place sets itself apart from the other stalls because it has umbrellas and bar-height tables and chairs set up on the little grass segment of the parking lot. It feels moderately elegant compared to the other options and the ceviche is solid.
Sitting behind us is a man that looks like a hobo. He has finished his corvina ceviche when the employee asks if she can throw out the Styrofoam cup with remaining fish juice and onions. “No,” he says, as he covers the cup with his hand. “I will be eating this later.” He looks at the lady as if she is nuts. Does ceviche make people insane? Maybe.
One of the only real means of diversity across the ceviche stalls is the hot sauces. I favor one that’s a dark shade of orange and served out of an old water bottle. It’s made from habaneros but seems to be cut with sugar or salt, thus, it is less painful and packed with flavor. Even though I’m trying a new stall, I tell the woman from yesterday at Ceviches y Cocteles Place that her hot sauce is my favorite and she allows me to use it on a third-party ceviche. This seems to have made a crack in her veneer.
Today I also document that it’s not recommended to wear Rainbow sandals to the fish market. I slip and the fall hurts my confidence more than my joints because I was just getting comfortable.
I’m noticing a pretty strict protocol when it comes to staffing. There’s always a middle-aged woman serving the ceviche: she expects you to order quickly and she never smiles. There is always a child somewhere behind her either helping or typing away on a cell phone. The remainder of the employees are men who shuttle the ceviche to the main refrigeration units (in a lot of cases, these are located in a studio-like attic above said shop, accessed by a ladder). The men also drink beer from concealed containers.
Less because it looks delicious and more because I feel the need to expand my horizons, today I order a combination ceviche from a place without a name. The taste is similarly unremarkable but I find that I’m hating octopus a little less than when I first started.
At $1, I also get a cup of corvina ceviche: this is one of the best deals in Panama. But walking home, the first true downside has arisen: I feel the need to take a shower after every time I visit the ceviche strip.
Up until this point, I have only eaten ceviche at nighttime and I realize that the daylight creates an entirely different ambiance. Everyone is sweating, everyone is tired, and everything smells.
Today I order from the lady at “Ceviche Cholin,” who suggests I try an interesting “Mediterranean ceviche.” Made with olives and herbs. It has more the feel of a seafood salad but the flavor is there. Thinking to myself, it is not real ceviche, this is the first time I sense I am becoming something of a ceviche snob. I also now know that it takes me exactly 6 saltine crackers to proportionally eat one cup of ceviche unless I get it from Ceviche y Cockteles Place who overloads the cup (in which case, I need 8 crackers).
Since it’s lunchtime, I also order a black clam (or concha negra) ceviche but in doing so, I accidentally push the serving cart with my weight, shifting the jars of ceviche around a little bit. The woman gives me a look that says, “do that again and you’re getting last week’s clams.”
Yesterday’s clams left a weird, metalic taste in my mouth. I drink a shot of tequila before walking over tonight which gives everything a slightly funnier sheen. For instance, I am 95% positive that it is in your best interest to order two small ceviches rather than one medium one (even though they’re the exact same price).
Today I order one ceviche de langostinos and one ceviche de corvina and one empty cuarto container to mix them together in. Since these are the components I like best of the ceviche de combinacion, combining them is awesome. I am becoming something of a ceviche alchemist.
I also have figured out that Ceviches 7-Mil sells illegal beers in Styrofoam cups. I order one for $1.25 and correctly identify it as Old Milwaukee. The woman is amazed that I am able to do this but I tell her I drank roughly 12,000 of them in college.
You know what’s great about ceviche? It’s one of the last universal things in Panama. Nobody wakes up in the morning just for the ceviche, but in the end, everyone consumes it. Just as I sit at Ceviche Archi B-4 and scribble down these notes into my iPhone, I’m surrounded by punk rocker teenagers, an older couple that looks like they’re from the middle of Iowa, a family of five sharing a cuarto, two off-duty police officers, a romantic couple feeding each other spoons of fish, a bunch of taxi drivers eating on the hood of a pickup truck and a dog poking through the trash. It’s like Panama’s own little UN.
Today I do something I have not done in the past and order ceviche to-go, however, I make the mistake of talking to a friend instead of watching what goes into the container. All sealed up and paid, I walk home just to find out that I was sold coctel de langostinos (not ceviche de langostinos). Coctel de langostinos sounds good, but it is basically shrimp smothered in ranch dressing.
The coctels are an important aspect of the ceviche industry: they represent about half of the market. Unlike traditional cocktail sauce, coctels are mayonnaise based. They are basically mayonnaise mixed with ketchup. It’s one thing to eat fish sitting out in the sun all day. It’s another to involve mayo in the mix. I decide to give it to my local crackhead Carlos: he’ll eat anything.
One of the things I like about the ceviche strip is its simplicity and its austerity. Apart from the several types of ceviche, there are no real choices to make. There are no distractions: just you and the ceviche. But today I see something I have not seen before and that is a ceviche stand selling fried fish. Seeing as though it is Friday night, it must be a weekend thing.
That it is the weekend may also account for the school of 15 children behind me playing Silent Night on recorders. But then again, it is 9PM and I have eaten ceviche for 8 days straight so there’s also a chance that I am hallucinating.
Walking home along the Cinta Costera, I ask a group of indigenous looking Panamanians what they are waiting for by the dock and they say, “a speed boat to take us into the heart of the Darien.” Maybe I really am hallucinating.
I decide to come full circle and eat at Ceviches y Cocteles Place again. The woman, LetsiBeth her name is, says she’s missed me and that I remind her of Matthew McConaughey. For some reason, I cannot envision what Matthew McConaughey looks like or any movie he has ever been in, but I order one seabass and one langostinos and without even needing prompting, she gives me the cuarto container for mixing. I like her. I like Matthew McConaughey.
As if the journey couldn’t get any better, I was informed that now, after my 9 days, Ceviches y Cocteles Place has lobster ceviche and it is supposed to be insanely good. And now that the experiment is over, all variations of questions reduce down to “will you ever eat ceviche again?” And the answer is Yes. I ate some two days later.
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